Wednesday, September 21, 2011
(as prepared for delivery)
Mr. President, being from Oklahoma, I can remember back in the days when they called Oklahoma, southern Kansas, northern Texas, and southwestern Missouri tornado alley. I say to my good friend from Oregon that I have been in aviation for many years. I know people who won’t even fly airplanes through what we call tornado alley. But by now I think we know that tornadoes are a daily threat to Americans each spring as severe weather rolls across the country. In the past 30 years, over 34,000 tornadoes have touched down somewhere in the country, which means that one touches down, on average, every 8 hours of each day. This chart right here shows that each one of these little green dots represents a tornado.
As we all witnessed once again this spring, many of these tornadoes grow into very voracious and dangerous storms that bring significant harm to property and life. This year, 57 such tornadoes struck 14 States and claimed 550 lives. Alabama was the hardest hit. I can remember when Oklahoma was ranked as the hardest hit. They had over 240 killed. Missouri also suffered heavily with the loss of 157 people in Joplin. I say to my friend from Missouri, who is on the floor, I was up in Joplin right after that happened, down close to the Oklahoma border. It is something you have to witness before you understand it. In my State of Oklahoma where we have more than our fair share of violent tornadoes, this spring’s storms resulted in the death of 14 people and the injury of many others. Until you have this happen, and you go on site, which I always make it a point to do–after each tornado in Oklahoma, you go down and talk to the people. You think of little kids looking for their toys and this type of thing, but they are gone and gone for good.
While this year has seen a large number of fatal tornadoes, they are a nationwide threat each spring. Since 1980, 734 tornadoes have claimed 2,462 lives in at least 37 different States, including 126 in my State of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, many of these lost lives could have been avoided had storm shelters been more widely used.
In the past few months, a number of Oklahomans have asked me if there is a Federal program that promotes the installation of tornado storm shelters. They observed that those individuals who have these storm shelters live through it. They may lose their property, but they live through it. So they think, Well, government gets involved in all of these programs; what are they going to do to help us encourage people to build storm shelters? When I looked into it, I came up emptyhanded despite the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars are obligated each year to mitigate the effects of natural disasters.
Since death is one of the worst effects of natural disasters, one would think tornado storm shelters, which are the safest way to ride out tornadoes, would be a high priority, but only limited funds have been made available in the past, and it has been sporadic and poorly allocated. Most of the funds have been made available through FEMA’s Hazardous Mitigation Grant Program, which is a mandatory program that allocates funds to States to help them better prepare for future disasters. States are able to direct some of this money to residential storm shelter construction, but to do this they have to go through a lot of hoops–through a lengthy process of coordinating a program with FEMA. Needless to say, it is a bureaucratic nightmare and hugely expensive.
Oklahoma did this after the devastating tornadoes of May 3, 1999. Fifty people died and many others were injured that day. As the recovery effort took hold, it became clear to public leaders that staggeringly few Oklahomans had storm shelters accessible for their homes. Because of this, Oklahoma’s Department of Emergency Management worked with FEMA to create a temporary rebate program to encourage individuals to install storm shelters in their homes. The rebate was worth $2,000, and the funding cap was set at $6 million.