06/13/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

Can We Minimize Heartbreak From Deadly Storms?

I have an odd research agenda for an economist: for the last 15 years I have studied the societal impacts and economic dimensions of natural hazards. The recent tornadoes in central Oklahoma have made it difficult to remain at arm's length from the topic as I once lived there and our son and his family still do. Tragedies compel us to examine questions that remain dormant in normal times. The tornadoes that claimed so many lives have forced us to ask how we can make living in the heartland safer. But every decision involves tradeoffs.

Let me begin with the easiest observation. The El Reno EF5 tornado of May 31 struck just eleven days after the horrific EF5 tornado that hit Moore resulting in the deaths of 24 including 7 children at Plaza Towers Elementary School. My wife and I were visiting our son that day and felt the fear and anguish while the sirens were sounding. Far too many people decided to leave their homes in an attempt to escape the approaching monster. Normally, deaths in vehicles account for about 10% of tornado fatalities. But this storm went right across I-40, now clogged with traffic, and killed 20 people, most in cars. It's not known if the victims were simply driving through that area or were trying to flee the storm but one thing is clear and cannot be stressed enough: you are safer in a permanent home than in a car.

My second observation is more difficult. I wrote an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News and have been interviewed on television several times about this. Should we use federal funds to require safe rooms in all schools? I have two grandchildren who will, soon enough, be in public school. Absolutely, I want them to be safe. But tornado deaths in buildings such as schools are so rare and there are so many school campuses, that to provide safe rooms for all schools would be cost prohibitive. However, I do support local districts inspecting their campuses, identify the most vulnerable and ask their residents to approve the issuance of bonds for the construction of safe rooms in those schools. If such a bond election were held in our local district, I would gladly vote for it. Money spent for life saving programs at the federal level has a great deal of competition and other programs could use that money and save more lives.

My final comment has to do with the construction of residential housing. I've lived in Texas and Oklahoma all my life. There is one constant: wind. Even without a tornado, straight-line winds can reach hurricane strength. An EF5 tornado has winds in excess of 210 mph. More common are tornadoes with much lower wind speeds. We can't afford to build a home that can survive an EF5 tornado but those are only one tenth of one percent of all tornadoes. Almost 98% have wind speeds of 130 mph and less. We can build for that. But it does add cost and extra time in construction. The cost is not much and the time is minimal. Homebuilders will gladly build that way if their customers demand it. And therein lies the problem. The tradeoff becomes better construction or granite countertops.

Tornadoes are nature's most violent storm. When they cross urban areas, very bad things are going to happen. But common sense and good decisions made well before the storm arrives can minimize the heartbreak.