The Dallas Morning News ran an op-ed I wrote about where to spend tornado safety funds. The most tragic element of last week’s tornado in Moore was that an EF-5 tornado, an extremely rare event, hit two elementary schools with full force. Few structures are designed for that type of stress but engineered buildings would be about the best choice you could have. Most residential structures would be leveled.
The public policy question here is what, if anything, can we do to minimize casualties? And how should we fund those efforts? Currently, FEMA and the state of Oklahoma has a program to pay for most of the costs to engineer saferooms in new Oklahoma schools which would provide protection from even the largest tornado. Currently, only 100 schools in Oklahoma have received this funding and regrettably, Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore was not one of those. If you consider that Oklahoma has 1,780 campuses and estimates to provide a safe room run from $500,000 to $1,000,000 per campus, the outlay to protect all schools would be immense, $1 to $2 billion dollars. FEMA’s HazardMitigation Grant Program (HMGP) provides grant money to areas declared by the President of the United States to be disaster areas. This designation releases money that can be used by residents to install a FEMA approved safe room or communities to designate for other mitigation uses like sheltering options for mobile home parks. The most recent iteration of this program in Oklahoma was so oversubscribed that grantees were determined by lottery.
In general, my research suggests that using public money to save lives from tornado fatalities fails the benchmark that spending is considered reasonable if the cost per avoided fatality is less than $10 million. In our book Economic andSocietal Impacts of Tornadoes and the follow up to that book DeadlySeason: An Analysis of the 2011 TornadoOutbreak, Dan Sutter and I show that these programs are well outside that benchmark for most uses of the program. Using the funds to reduce fatalities in mobile homes is the one exception for some states.
These events define tragedy and emotions run high, as they should. My suggestion as we go forward to implement these programs would be as follows: 1) For school districts, instead of outright grants, use Federal money to provide the financing at 0% interest to cover the additional costs in new schools to provide a safe room. For existing schools who wish to modify campuses to provide a safe room, provide financing at 0% interest as well. Each district and its residents must decide whether or not this expenditure is the optimal use of limited funds, but for those that do, make it possible by providing the money at no interest. 2) Grants for use in residential housing should be strictly limited to the most vulnerable structures, mobile homes, or to low income families. The HMGP currently addresses this by providing a higher percentage of the safe room covered by the grant, from 75% to 90%. But, again, funds are very limited and it seems to me that more affluent families should be able to make the choice to build a safe room without help (see my previous post on the safe room my wife and I installed) and that if we do anything, it should be directed at the most vulnerable structures.