Yes, Erik and I have been pretty quiet since Election Day. We’ve been processing.
Under ordinary circumstances we try to keep our personal political and religious opinions off the blog because we like to think of Root Simple as a big tent where all sorts of people can come together around common ground. Also, partisan discussions online lead immediately to unproductive spates of bickering and trolling.
But this time, it’s different. This time, silence seems the greater crime.
This is a hard post to write. I keep ranting, then deleting.
As I stood there, I watched the same thing happen over and over again. As people approached the building they’d hesitate briefly at the sight of us, afraid of what was waiting on the steps of their mosque, but then they’d see our smiles, or read our signs, and realize we were friendly, that we were actually standing in solidarity with them. Then their faces would light up and they would smile big brilliant smiles. They came over and shook our hands and thanked us. Many wept. I wept. We touched our hearts and saluted one another. I am weeping again as I write this, just remembering.
The Islamic Center is a big place, and it serves people of many ages, colors, classes and ethnicities. I cannot count how many hands I shook, how many times I was blessed and I, in turn, blessed others. My heart is still buoyed on the love I felt that day.
And as we stood there, slowly, our group began to grow. A bunch of students and a couple of rabbis from the local Rabbinical school joined us. A woman who honked her support for us while driving by said to herself, “You know, if I spot a parking place, I will take that as a sign that I should do more than honk–I should stop and join them.” And lo! The parking place did materialize, and she came and stood by my side. She told me stories of protesting in the 60’s. A shy young woman arrived bearing a bowl of grapes and pomegranates. She had no idea what why we were all there–she’d just stopped by to give the mosque some fruit and a letter saying she was so very sorry for all the ugliness, but she joined us too. And so it went, and so our group swelled.
This being the modern world, after the handshakes and tears, we all took to social media to share the event with our friends. I have never been photographed so often! This little action may not have been a big splash in the news, but I know that our images went all over world. “Wave hello to England!” one man shouted as he took a video.
Root Simple photo
As I stood there, I remembered a Christmas Eve night in San Diego many years ago, perhaps my favorite Christmas Eve ever. For some reason Erik and I had the night off–we weren’t traveling or at a relative’s house. We decided on the spur of the moment to join a candlelight vigil at the Mexican border. My memory is fuzzy now, but I’m pretty sure it was sponsored by The Catholic Worker. We carried stubs of candles and sang songs and heard recited all the names of those who had died trying to cross the border that year. But mostly we talked to the people on the other side of the fence. Or, because sometimes we could not speak, we touched hands through the bars, or just looked at one another–really looked, for a change. In one another we saw reflected our own sacred humanity, as we did at the mosque last week. And yes, we wept that night as well.
We need to do more weeping like that, weeping within the space of community, because it softens our hearts. We need to spend more time with people who are not like us in heart opening situations –because when we do, we realize that we are, in fact, very much alike in all the ways that matter, and our best state of being is that of being in love.
When we discuss spirit, the sacred, the holy, God, whatever you want to call it, oftentimes we make an upward gesture, as if all that is sacred hovers above us, just out of reach. This week I’ve realized it should be horizontal gesture. The sacred travels in a straight, horizontal line from heart to heart, from eye to eye. It is always with us. It binds us all together.
Peace to you all.
n.b. I realize I should note that St. John’s did not descend on the Islamic Center out of the blue. We already have a good relationship with them, due in no small part to the efforts of the marvelousGuibord Center to promote interfaith friendship and understanding. If you live in the Los Angeles area and are interested in learning more about the great world faiths, including Islam, you should attend theirfree lectures. They also havecollected notes and videos online for continued learning.
These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
Here’s an abbreviated version of Eco’s list:
1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
8. The humiliation by the wealth and force of their enemies. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
I found this list via Paul Bausch, Blogger co-inventor and long-time MetaFilter developer, who writes:
You know, we have a strong history of opposing authoritarianism. I’d like to believe that opposition is like an immune system response that kicks in.
It difficult to look at Eco’s list and not see parallels between it and the incoming Trump administration.2 We must resist. Disagree. Be modern. Improve knowledge. Welcome outsiders. Protect the weak. Reject xenophobia. Welcome difference. At the end of his piece, Eco quotes Franklin Roosevelt saying during a radio address on the “need for continuous liberal government”:
I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.
And Eco himself adds: “Freedom and liberation are an unending task.”
You’re probably going to be hearing that word a lot in the coming months, so before we get to Eco’s list, here’s a quick dictionary definition of fascism: “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization”. That’s imprecise as hell, but “authoritarian” and “nationalistic” are components you’ll always see associated with fascism. ↩
As an exercise as you read through the list, think about statements and policies made by Trump and his team that reflect each point. As I said, it is not difficult.↩
Mitch Dobrowner takes wonderfully dramatic black & white photos of clouds and storms from across the plains of the central United States. Dobrowner, who lives in California, became “addicted” to photography as a teen after discovering Ansel Adams and Minor White but then gave it up to spend energy on his career and family. A few years ago, he picked his old obsession back up and these storm photos are the result. (via colossal)
Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol to kill 49 people at the Pulse nightclub Sunday. The same style of rifle was also used by the shooters at San Bernardino, California; Umpqua Community College in Oregon; Sandy Hook and several other mass shootings in recent years. On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton described the rifle as a “weapon of war” that should be banned, and President Obama concurred. But an effective ban could be difficult to devise.
The AR-15 used to be illegal. President Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban, which was in effect from 1994 to 2004, banned the AR-15 and other guns that were too similar to military-style weapons. However, this law did not prohibit Americans from owning semi-automatic weapons; 1 it capped how many military features an individual gun could have. During the ban, a semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 could legally have any one of the following features, as long as it didn’t have two or more of them: a folding stock (making the gun slightly easier to conceal), a pistol grip (making the weapon easier to hold and use), a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor (making it harder to see where shots are coming from), or a grenade launcher.
A 2004 report commissioned by the Department of Justice on the effects of the assault weapons ban concluded that the law was largely ineffective at limiting access to weapons with the power of the AR-15. According to the report, the ban focused on “features that have little to do with the weapons’ operation, and removing those features is sufficient to make the weapons legal.” The report noted that several semi-automatic rifles were functionally equivalent to the AR-15 and untouched by the ban. It’s hard to know whether Mateen’s AR-15-style weapon would have been covered by the old ban, though some versions of the Sig Sauer MCX rifle he used are sold with more than one of the components that were limited by the law. Depending on how many military-style features the rifle had when he bought it, it might have been legal under the assault weapons ban. And he would have been able to modify the gun himself, even under the old law.
The review for the DOJ concluded that bans on specific models or features of assault weapons had little to no discernible impact on gun deaths. If the law had any effect, the report said, it was most likely the result of bans on large-capacity magazines, which contain 10 or more rounds. (Large magazines allow shooters to keep firing without pausing to reload, a point at which their targets could run or fight back.) Calculations based on homicide reports in Jersey City, New Jersey, suggested that restricting large-capacity magazines might lower the number of gunshot victims by up to 5 percent. However, there are a huge number of high-capacity magazines already in circulation. The report authors concluded that a ban on them probably wouldn’t make it hard to keep a determined shooter from legally buying a pre-ban magazine and pairing it with an AR-15 equivalent.
On the evening of May 3, 1999, a massive tornado tore through the Oklahoma City area. Known today as the Bridge Creek-Moore Tornado, it’s infamous for its size (a mile wide) and strength (wind speeds reached 300 miles per hour, on par with a Tokyo bullet train). It moved, as tornadoes so often do, from the southwest to the northeast, touching down in the rural plains before churning its way through the suburb of Moore and up to Midwest City, just east of downtown — which was where it pulverized my dad’s truck.
My dad, Howard Koerth, moved to Oklahoma in 1994 to teach art at Rose State Community College in Midwest City. He was there May 3, right in the tornado’s path. Instead of going to the storm shelter, he opened the back door of his building and watched the fat funnel tear apart an auto dealership. The tornado was gray, tinted with red from the layers of clay-filled topsoil it had peeled off the Earth. If you watch video of it today, you see it surrounded by a haze of confetti. When the camera zooms in, the ticker tape turns out to be, instead, a blizzard of two-by-fours, siding, whole trucks. Sixteen years later, Dad has yet to exorcise that image from his mind and he’s still asking me about the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado. Or, rather, he asks me about its sister storms — tornadoes that, to him, seem to follow the same path, flattening the same places over and over. Especially Moore. Always Moore.
He called me in 2003, when a slightly less powerful tornado — and, by “less powerful,” I mean one classified as “devastating” (an EF4) rather than “incredible” (an EF5) — hit Moore. He called me in 2010, when another EF4 struck the town. He called me in 2013, when Moore was hit — improbably — by a second EF5. He always asks the same question: “What is going on here?” One town. Sixteen years. Four big, powerful tornadoes. It’s a hell of a coincidence. Can it really be just the work of random chance? 1
My dad isn’t the only person vexed by this question. And the question isn’t limited to Moore. Instead, asking about Moore is really asking a bigger question: Why do tornadoes strike some places and not others? About 1,000 tornadoes touch down in the United States every year, and the majority of them happen in one of two areas — a vertical swath running from roughly Nebraska to Texas and a horizontal swath from Oklahoma to Georgia. Within that, there are places where tornadoes seem to cluster, such as Birmingham and Little Rock, said Tom Grazulis, a researcher who, in the 1980s, compiled records of American tornadoes back to the 17th century for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But those clusters usually happen over longer periods of time, say, 40 years or 100 years. He couldn’t think of any other place hit as hard in such a short period of time as Moore.
SHARE OF ALL TORNADOES
Distribution of U.S. tornadoes, 1994-2012
Nobody knows how likely it is that a given town would be hit by four violent tornadoes in 16 years; if we knew that, then we’d also know whether Moore really is especially tornado prone, or just suffering a streak of bad luck. But we do know big tornadoes, themselves, are rare. Devastating EF4s made up 1.37 percent of all the tornadoes that hit the U.S. from 1994 to 2012. 2 Just 0.14 percent were incredible EF5s.
And that’s enough to make Moore’s recent history turn heads. People who live in the Plains states, as I once did, have a special relationship with tornadoes, wary but familiar, like your grandma’s dog that’ll bite if you aren’t careful. This is a part of the country where little kids dream about growing up to be storm chasers. Where tornado sirens go off every Wednesday at lunchtime, just as a test of the system. It’s a part of the country where art professors like my dad duck outside for a peek at one of the most powerful tornadoes in recorded history.
But this thing with Moore even weirds out Oklahomans. “For years people have asked me, ‘What about Moore?’ ” said Gary England, a retired TV meteorologist who shepherded generations of Oklahomans through more than 40 tornado seasons. “People talk about topography. They talk about geomagnetic forces. I think it’s very unusual. But I think most scientists would probably tell you it’s just a roll of the dice.”
The first big tornado recorded in Oklahoma happened on April 25, 1893. Witnesses claimed it was more than a mile wide. It hit Moore, which had just been incorporated that same year. Yes, one of the first things that happened in the town was the destruction of the town.
But that still doesn’t mean that a tornado in Moore is anything more than roll of the dice, as England put it. Even Grazulis, who was surprised by what had happened to Moore recently, thinks the events of the last 16 years reek of random clustering. That’s because, all things considered, it’s no big surprise that a place in central Oklahoma is being hit by a lot of tornadoes. There’s a mystery about the risks associated with Moore, but it’s a mystery that’s complicated by matters of scale. If you zoom out — look at our hemisphere or our continent — the part of the country Moore is in really is more likely to be hit by tornadoes than most other places, that’s not random. But the fact that Moore, specifically, is being hit over and over … that could still just be bad luck.
To understand why, you need to know a little about how tornadoes work. All tornadoes that touch down in central Oklahoma start their lives in two places: the Gulf of Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. Warm, moist air comes up from the Gulf in the south. From the west, air ripples over the mountaintops, losing moisture and heat as it goes. This odd couple meets on the downward slope into the plains. The air currents from the south tend to be at a lower level of the atmosphere than those from the west, which creates an opportunity for naturally buoyant, hot, moist air to rise up through layers of cool, dry air. That produces condensation, just like water droplets form on the outside of a cold can of soda on a hot day. Now you have the ingredients of a thunderstorm: moisture, rising air currents, and the instability that happens when Gulf air and the mountain air jockey for position.
This is why the infamous Tornado Alley of the Plains states is Tornado Alley. It’s the place where the Gulf air and the mountain air meet. “The central part of the U.S. is incredibly well designed to produce tornadoes,” said Harold Brooks, senior scientist at the National Severe Storms Weather Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma — a suburb just south of Moore. There are a few other places on Earth with similar profiles, but they have limitations the Plains states just don’t have, such as a mountain range like the Andes, which is thinner and can’t dry or cool air as well as the Rockies. The central U.S. is the most likely place for tornadoes to form, on this continent and anywhere in the world. Insomuch as it sits right in the middle of that, yes, Moore is at a higher risk.
But that’s Moore in comparison to Cleveland or Buenos Aires. What about at the smaller scale: Moore in comparison to, say, Tulsa? That’s a question that hasn’t been explored as much as the science of tornadoes themselves. Researchers at the National Severe Storms Laboratory say there isn’t much emphasis placed on the question of whether a specific region or town might be more prone to tornado activity than another. Instead, they’re more interested in how the storms form, how to track them and how to get more accurate warnings out faster.
But some scientists are trying to find out more about the distribution of tornadoes. Brooks, along with fellow meteorologists Patrick Marsh and Gregory Carbin 3 are among the scientists who are fascinated by the possibility that Moore (and certain other places) really could be tornado magnets. They’ve published research relating to it and written about it on blogs. 4 But none of them do that work as their main job. “What about Moore?” is a question guys like these talk about over beers at the end of the day, Brooks told me. The research they are doing might one day make it easier for them to answer that question. Right now, though, they can’t.
There are three big problems. First, tornadoes are really complex systems. They only form if a storm begins to rotate vertically, a corkscrew of air rising high into the sky. Scientists think that rotation starts because of wind shear, quick changes in wind speed or direction at different levels of the atmosphere. Imagine holding a piece of Play-Doh between your flattened hands. If you move them past each other, in opposite directions, the dough in between rolls up into a tube. Similarly, wind shear creates horizontal columns of spinning air. When those get caught by rising warm air, they can tip up, become vertical, and turn a thunderstorm into a supercell. A tornado happens when that spinning supercell touches the ground.
If hurricanes are nature’s nuclear warhead, tornadoes are its smart bomb.
Each of the steps in the storm’s formation – from the meeting of the Gulf and mountain air currents, to the moment the supercell stretches down and scrapes its fingers through the dirt – involves forces scientists don’t totally understand and elements of random chance. Add it all together and you have a dark, churning mass of mystery and probability.
For Gregory Carbin, that reality sank in as he watched the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado. From Carbin’s vantage point, just outside the Severe Storms Laboratory, the tornado itself wasn’t visible, but the supercell was. It rose up, black and boiling, a chimney belching angry water vapor 50,000 feet into the air. And Carbin thought, “It’s so fragile.”
“It occurred to me that, you know, what would it take for it to just be a rain shower or nothing at all? Everything needs to come together just right, and if you don’t have those conditions, if something is off — and we don’t even know what that something might be — you don’t get a tornado,” he said.
The second problem is that tornadoes are pretty rare. One thousand a year, scattered across the continent, does not produce many data points at the scale of an individual city. Most days, there aren’t tornadoes anywhere. That problem is exacerbated by the third issue: Scientists really only have about 50 years of really good tornado documentation. Essentially, Brooks told me, scientists can’t tell us whether what’s happened in Moore is abnormal because they don’t know what a “normal” amount of violent tornadoes is. With all of that, Brooks said, there’s not a good way to clearly tell the difference between patterns and pareidolia. After all, the human brain is primed to find significance in the random. In the creaky corners of our neural pathways, a jumble of rocks can become an old man, a coat hanger can become a drunk octopus, a bunch of craters on the moon give us a friendly smile. It’s so easy for a few random events to make one small town look like a tornado magnet. It would be harder not to see it.
And Moore, itself, facilitates that pareidolia. Located about 11 miles due south of downtown Oklahoma City, Moore is a town for which Interstate 35 serves as a virtual Main Street, running through the middle of town. Businesses cluster on either side: A movie theater, Hollie’s Flatiron Steakhouse, Furr’s Fresh Buffet, the skating rink, Leon’s Pharmacy. Even the public library, community center and the Chamber of Commerce abut the frontage roads.
The town may have been incorporated in 1893, but until suburbia dropped out of the sky and landed on it, Moore was so small that there was no real historic center to anchor businesses to. Stretching away from the highway, on either side, streets of tidy, middle-class homes wind around parks and curve into cul-de-sacs. Many have brick facades and a stubby look, hugging the ground like Corgis. It took me a minute to realize that this was because the construction is almost uniformly slab on grade. Central Oklahoma is tornado prone, and the National Weather Service recommends basements and storm cellars as first-line tornado shelters. But few buildings in central Oklahoma are built with either one.
Like many places with this kind of history, Moore is somewhat amorphous, its 22 square miles bleeding into Oklahoma City to the north and the more well-known (and well-off) college town of Norman to the south. It’s easy for even longtime residents to be unsure of where their city ends and another begins. The official size is misleading in other ways, as well. That’s because Moore’s school district is 159 square miles, encompassing parts of the southern end of OKC, itself. The result is a colloquial Moore that is much larger than what the census might tell you. “The largest high school in Oklahoma City is Westmoore High School. So people think of all that southwestern Oklahoma City as being Moore,” Brooks said.
Keep that in mind while you think about the tornadoes that hit the Oklahoma City area on May 31, 2013. This was 11 days after an EF5 destroyed large chunks of Moore, grinding houses, parks, churches and two grade schools into rubble. This storm dropped at least five individual tornadoes all over the region. Sirens went off in Moore that night. Plenty of people who lived there fled for their lives. Among them was Chris Fox, his wife, two kids, his mother and his grandfather. That night, a local TV news anchor advised people to get out of the tornadoes’ way by any method possible – including by car. So they did.
“Which, had I been in my right mind, we would have stayed put and would have been fine,” Fox said. “What we ended up doing, we drove into the path of this smaller spin-off and we had to pull out of traffic into a church parking lot. As we’re pulling off, trees are coming out, roots are coming up, rain is going sideways, my kids are crying and screaming. We end up arriving at this church with 20 other people who have come from different directions to get here. The inner doors are locked. We’re in a vestibule. And this guy whips out a crowbar from his truck.”
Fox, who went on to found a community volunteer organization called Serve Moore, survived his brush with both the fury of nature and breaking and entering. But the tornadoes he and his family were fleeing never hit the place they were fleeing from. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, those tornadoes touched down in El Reno, southwest Oklahoma City and other suburbs … but not Moore.
Moore’s tornado problem exists both as data and as mythology. There are the tornadoes that hit Moore and then there’s the pervasive sense that Moore gets hit by tornadoes.
Consider the suburb of Norman, which sits just to the south of Moore. It’s the next set of exits off I-35. Patrick Marsh, of the Severe Storms Weather Laboratory, told me initially that Moore had been hit by more tornadoes in recent years than Norman. But, as we continued talking, he went through that recent tornado history and ended up stopping and correcting himself. Actually, Norman probably had been hit about as frequently as Moore, he said. It’s just that Norman had avoided the big EF4s and EF5s that everybody remembered, and so Norman hadn’t taken on the status of being tornado prone. “I don’t think you can statistically prove that your risk is any lower than what happened two miles up the road in Moore,” he said. “But everybody in Norman thinks, ‘Oh, I’m safe. Because the tornado will hit Moore.’ ”
Between the large-scale likelihood of tornadoes, the pareidolia and the self-mythologizing, I was ready to believe that the Moore mystery wasn’t really that mysterious. Bad luck and supposition seemed to account for everything. That’s certainly the sense you get from a cursory glance at the historical data. Harold Brooks showed me a map of Oklahoma City sprinkled with multicolored tracks of all the tornadoes that had gone through the area since 1880. There’s no obvious confluence over Moore. The whole region is littered with tornado tracks. Bethany, a town on Oklahoma City’s northwest side, has been hit seven times since 1930. On the map view, it looks about as beleaguered as Moore. Meanwhile, there’s a chunk of northeast Moore that’s never been hit, at all.
But then Brooks brought out one more data set. In the late 1990s, he’d been a part of an effort to quantify what was normal and what wasn’t about the distribution of tornadoes. As I already mentioned, this is difficult work and it’s made even more complex by fudging and inconsistencies in the historical documentation.
National Weather Service records go back to 1950. Tom Grazulis’ dataset, which is based on newspaper accounts and records kept by local postmasters, picks up the trail back to the 1600s, and Brooks considers it reliable to about 1870. But both of those are likely missing a lot of smaller tornadoes and tornadoes that landed in lightly populated places. Perspective matters. In 1880 a mapmaker promoting colonization of the Oklahoma Territory claimed the area was virtually tornado free, Grazulis told me. Even when these records don’t miss a tornado, they have clearly been fudged in many ways. It’s unlikely, as Brooks pointed out, that so many tornadoes would start punctually at the top of the hour, the way they tend to in the historical records.
But these records can still tell us something useful about the statistical probability of a tornado’s touching down in one place and not in another. At the very least, it tells you what is possible. Brooks analyzed the data to find the times of the year and places in the country where tornadoes seemed to be more likely to happen. It wasn’t exactly a prediction of the future – more a detailed observation of the past. Using this, he came up with the most likely place and time for a big tornado: a town called Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma, on May 2.
“So, has a tornado ever hit Paul’s Valley on May 2?” I asked him.
But when I laughed, he explained. That location comes with a caveat. It’s got some built-in margin of error to make up for all the poorly collected reports and missed tornadoes of decades past. Scientists call this smoothing the data, and Brooks’ estimate is smoothed to within 50 miles or so.
Moore is 46 miles north of Paul’s Valley.
Brooks presented this data at a conference on April 30, 1999. Three days later, the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado came to town. “In some sense,” he said, “That tornado on May 3 was about as likely of a violent tornado as you could imagine.”
Michael Bewley was 11 years old in 1999, when the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado flattened the house he shared with his mother on the outskirts of Moore. One day, they had a small, neat home on three acres at the end of a long dirt road. The next day, they had rubble.
Bewley and his mother had no basement. They could have crawled into the bathtub, pulled a mattress over themselves, and hoped for the best. Instead, they ran for the car. “She was a waitress and she grabbed her time cards, I grabbed the dog, and we left,” he told me. When they came back later that night, everything was gone. Their belongings had been crushed, thrown and rained on. Bewley is certain they wouldn’t have survived if they’d stayed.
But, in one sense, he did stay. Bewley still lives in Moore. Today he manages Chris Fox’s Serve Moore foundation. Bewley has an infant daughter whom he plans to raise in Moore and who has already taken her first turns in the storm shelter. These are the realities of his life: Has it been shaped by chance, or something else?
We can’t completely discount the possibility of something else. In 2004, Brooks’ colleagues Chris Broyles and Casey Crosbie published a paper that analyzed the locations of all the EF3, EF4 and EF5 tornadoes that touched down between 1880 and 2003. They focused on these three classes of tornado because that filters out the smaller type of tornadoes that more easily get left out of records. By smoothing the data in this way, the researchers saw some places where larger tornadoes really do seem to be more common.
Looking at it this way is looking at tornadoes on a zoomed-in scale, regional instead of national. At this level, Moore still isn’t unique. But it is part of a clique — a gang of cities and counties marked by the invisible target painted on their backs. Broyles and Crosbie drew a frequency map of the 979 big tornadoes to touch down in 123 years, showing the number of tornadoes per 1,000 square miles. Plotted out this way, they found clusters. There are dark blobs – tornado alleys within tornado alleys – scattered across the continent. One of those blobs sits over central Oklahoma, north of the Canadian River, stretching from Oklahoma City to Tulsa. Moore is a part of that blob. Other places, including Fillmore County, Nebraska, and Union County, Mississippi, appear to be even more prone to big tornadoes.
This study wasn’t perfect. For one thing, Brooks said, it’s probably no coincidence that the highest frequencies were east of the Mississippi River – where the population density, even in rural areas, is higher than in Oklahoma and other Plains states. That higher population density probably means more thorough reporting of tornadoes. It’s also possible that there are differences between locations in how tornado damage is recorded — and, thus, in how the tornadoes, which are classed based on the damage they cause, get counted.
Recently, a Severe Storms Laboratory research scientist named Corey Potvin teamed up with Brooks and Broyles to re-evaluate the mini-tornado alleys data. They tested out some new ways of accounting for flaws in historical records and calculated the probability that these mini-alleys occurred randomly was just 3 percent. In October of 2015, they presented the results as a poster at the National Weather Association Annual Meeting. Their conclusion: “At least some of the mini-tornado alleys likely are real.” Potvin now thinks that may be a bit premature to say and there are a lot of caveats that go with it, but he is confident they aren’t just a relic of the sampling: garbage data produced by flaws in the way the tornadoes were documented and categorized. What’s happened in Moore is shaped by chance — but it’s also, probably, more than that.
Unfortunately, this is where tornado science dusts its hands and wanders off for a beer. Meteorology can tell us about how tornadoes form at the continental scale. Detailed study of the historical records can tell us about regional probabilities. But when you get to the hyper-local level — the real question of, what is up with Moore? — scientists go mute.
Luckily, we have insurance agents. (If anybody would know about the risks of natural disasters, it’s the insurance industry, right?) And from their perspective, Moore just isn’t that special. People who live in Moore don’t pay any more in home insurance premiums than people in nearby communities around OKC and central Oklahoma, said Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute. Frankly, he told me, insurers are more concerned about the thunderstorm that moves across the whole state than they are about the tornado that drops from it to wreck part of a county or two. Oklahomans have the fourth-highest property insurance premiums in the nation, and much of that is tied up in risks that might be tornado related, but aren’t tornado specific, such as hail, straight-line winds, tree branches crashing through the roof.
That’s because, unlike a hurricane, which can flatten property for hundreds of miles, tornadoes are a more discrete threat. The Bridge Creek-Moore tornado left a mile-wide path of complete destruction, but houses a few blocks away went untouched. Most people who got hit by that tornado haven’t been hit by any of the others. Parts of Moore have never been hit, at all. If hurricanes are nature’s nuclear warhead, tornadoes are its smart bomb. That difference impacts individual risk. And so the hurricane-prone states of Florida, Louisiana and Texas come before Oklahoma on the list of states with the highest premiums.
Knowing that, it becomes less surprising to learn that during the 16 years when Moore has been earning its reputation as America’s tornado magnet, it’s also been growing like gangbusters. A 2014 Census Bureau report showed a 41.3 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2013. “Our growth rate is higher than the state average and is typically one of the highest of the larger cities in Oklahoma,” said Deidre Ebrey, Moore’s director of economic development. That’s not because of the tornadoes. (If anything, it’s probably because of Oklahoma’s oil and gas boom.) But if you’re looking for a place to live near OKC, you could do worse than Moore. As many people who live there told me — the cost of living is low, the schools are good, the commutes are short. And you probably aren’t any more likely to be hit by a tornado than you are in a neighboring suburb.
Even if evidence comes along someday to prove that there really is something that draws tornadoes to Moore, specifically, that might not really matter all that much to the individual risk of the people who live there. Scale matters. And it contributes to the difficulty of figuring out why tornadoes strike some places and not others. To ask “why,” you first have to know “whether.” And whether tornado hot spots happen or not is relative. “Moore is a mystery, and you aren’t going to get an explanation,” Grazulis told me.
If that’s where we have to leave it … well, it wouldn’t be the first time tornadoes have led people on a bit of a wild goose chase. Take the case of Codell, Kansas. On May 20, 1916, Codell was hit by a tornado. It was hit again on May 20, 1917. On May 20, 1918, a third tornado tore through town. Yes, really. You can find the records with the Kansas State Historical Society. Was there something special about Codell? Maybe. And then again, maybe not.
“What I really would like to know is what it was like on May 20, 1919,” Brooks said. “That’s the story I want. But we don’t really know much. I guess the 1918 tornado just sort of ended the town.”
And after that, Codell, or what was left of it, was never hit by a tornado again.
Donald Trump may get the nuclear suitcase, a cranky “park bench” socialist took Hillary Clinton to the wire, many countries are becoming less free, and the neo-Nazi party came very close to assuming power in Austria. I could list more such events.
Haven’t you, like I, wondered what is up? What the hell is going on?
I don’t know, but let me tell you my (highly uncertain) default hypothesis. I don’t see decisive evidence for it, but it is a kind of “first blast” attempt to fit the basic facts while remaining within the realm of reason.
The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males. The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them? Brutes?
Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer. They do less well with nice. And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.
Female median wages have been rising pretty consistently, but the male median wage, at least as measured, was higher back in 1969 than it is today (admittedly the deflator probably is off, but even that such a measure is possible speaks volumes). A lot of men did better psychologically and maybe also economically in a world where America had a greater number of tough manufacturing jobs. They thrived under brutish conditions, including a military draft to crack some of their heads into line.
To borrow a phrasing from Peter Thiel, perhaps men did better in the age of “technological progress without globalization” rather than “globalization without technological progress,” as has been the case as of late.
Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton note, in addition, a sharp relative deterioration in mortality and morbidity among middle-aged white American men, due to suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse.
Trump’s support is overwhelming male, his modes are extremely male, no one talks about the “Bernie sisters,” and male voters also supported the Austrian neo-Nazi party by a clear majority. Aren’t (some) men the basic problem here? And if you think, as I do, that the incidence of rape is fairly high, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise you.
The sad news is that making the world nicer yet won’t necessarily solve this problem. It might even make it worse.
Again, we don’t know this is true. But it does help explain that men seem to be leading this “populist” charge, and that these bizarre reactions are occurring across a number of countries, not just one or two. It also avoids the weaknesses of purely economic explanations, because right now the labor market in America just isn’t that terrible. Nor did the bad economic times of the late 1970s occasion a similar counter-reaction.
One response would be to double down on feminizing the men, as arguably some of the Nordic countries have done. But America may be too big and diverse for that really to stick. Another option would be to bring back some of the older, more masculine world in a relatively harmless manner, the proverbial sop to Cerebus. But how to do that? That world went away for some good reasons.
If this is indeed the problem, our culture is remarkably ill-suited to talking about it. It is hard for us to admit that “all good things” can be bad for anyone, including brutes. It is hard to talk about what we might have to do to accommodate brutes, and that more niceness isn’t always a cure. And it is hard to admit that history might not be so progressive after all.
What percentage of men are brutes anyway? Let’s hope we don’t find out.
Rings true. I think a related factor is a tendency for these -- mostly male from my view, but that could be my own bias -- "brutes" to think in zero-sum terms in most cases. Meaning, any good that goes to one group must necessarily be good that does not go to another group; and any bad that happens to one group must necessarily be good for another group.
I am a feminist because there are many structural things that are clearly unfair to women as people, and they need to be dealt with.
Meanwhile, it seems to me, that forces entirely independent of feminism (like those described here) are causing structural changes that trend badly for masculinity, and the sooner we deal with it the better.
A theory put forth by Hoyt was that those on the left have spent decades demonizing their opposition with slurs about being nazis, homophobes, etc. They then govern in a manner that leads to terrible outcomes. When people want to backlash against the group that is in charge, they think that their only choice is to be the slurs that were thrown at the other party.
(As far as Violence goes, Don't believe anyone who says that it's increasing. Violence has been on a downward trend for ages. You can cherry-pick data such that it looks like its rising, but in the long term it's still way, way down.)