I taught at a small college in Oklahoma years ago, then started my journalism "career" there. One of the first things I learned is that Oklahoma, along with Singapore, has the most intense thunderstorms in the world along with their attendant tornadoes. Nearly every day in the spring and early summer, they form atop New Mexico's spookily beautiful Caprock bluffs and then move east. So many days I would see a black line along the horizon in the morning. In the middle of the day, the darkness might be so complete that the streetlights would come on. Tornado watches were routine; warnings and sirens things to dread. Drenching rain, golfball-sized hail and then violent wind were commonplace during the season. People watched carefully for the formation of a funnel — if they could see the sky in the darkness and rain. Major damage was more rare in the rolling woods of the eastern part of the state; west of I-35, watch out. The movie Twister, for all of Helen Hunt's considerable charms, doesn't even begin to capture the terrifying majesty of an Oklahoma storm.
All the old-timers had Tornado Alley lore. About pieces of straw driven through telephone poles. About the freak contingency of the storms: How one side of a street might be leveled and the other look as if nothing at all were amiss. About cars picked up and put down yet the occupants lived. And the little towns that once existed before being swept off the map. Every town has a section that is prone to get hit. Soon you learned your own storm wisdom, such as the strange color of the sky after a twister-laden front had moved past. Before coming to Arizona Territory in the late 19th century, my great-grandparents lived in Indian Territory, the eastern half of what became the state of Oklahoma. A tornado was my grandmother's earliest memory: Of being carried into a shelter before the monster leveled the little settlement, killing one of her sisters.
I think about this in the aftermath of the Joplin, Mo., tornado. The region suffers through the occasional bad year, where the most intense level of tornadoes can even destroy brick buildings. The so-called "super outbreak" of 1974 is the prime example, where 148 twisters struck 13 states on April 3 and 4. There was Terrible Tuesday in 1979, when an EF-4 — reportedly five-miles wide at one point — lethally struck the suburban edge of Wichita Falls, Texas. It was part of a storm that ravaged the Red River Valley, coming way too close to the little college town where I lived. Now we're living through another super outbreak year: Nearly 1,000 tornadoes and 500 dead. Or we're entering something different.
I used Mapquest and Google Earth to check out the path of the Joplin tornado. It didn't hit the heart of the town, but the newer areas. A Super Wal-Mart was destroyed, and Bentonville doesn't tend to place these monsters in established neighborhoods. One piece of tornado lore is that many towns were laid out on former tribal villages or areas known to have been relatively immune to the worst of the storms. It's no guarantee: One lethal tornado in the 1974 outbreak hit the heart of Xenia, Ohio, and downtown Fort Worth suffered at least a microburst a few years ago. But the degree of sprawl and larger populations are undeniable, as is, in most cases, the lack of caring about the older parts of towns. So we can expect more damage in the years ahead. The target zone has become much, much bigger. (And I wonder how many of these crapola tract houses have basements).
But is this a freak year or the start of more severe tornado outbreaks as a routine? The rational answer is, we don't know yet. Climate science is imprecise. Even if there's no serious scientific debate as to whether climate change is real, happening and man-made, assessing the consequences is more difficult. One report predicts a rise in tornado activity. Consensus will take time. And serious discussions are consigned to places where the infrequently energized American voter rare reads.
The so-called deniers don't need no rational answers. Consensus is dogma. To Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, climate change is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated." Thanks to lawmakers like him, along with the science whores, publicists and "think tanks" funded by the fossil fuels industry, we don't want to know. Add a big shout-out to a largely lazy, incurious and, in some cases, bought-off media. All these have also been big players in the lack of sensible land use and the spread of sprawl, whatever its environmental consequences, other externalities and, now, weather risks (add river flooding to this list). We only want science if it reinforces drivin' and house-buildin' and Super Wal-Mart and NASCAR.