The Norman Transcript

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April 29, 2013

Money spent beforehand blunts the impact of disasters

NORMAN — Gayland Kitch doesn’t feel a bit sheepish about not having a storm cellar, even though he is the director of emergency management in Moore, which faced one of the most violent tornadoes on record, with wind speeds greater than 300 mph, in May 1999.

It isn’t that Kitch is resisting the $3,000 or so it would take to build. It’s that during tornado weather, he’s not home. He’s at the office, which has its own shelter. His wife is there, too, volunteering. When their kids lived at home, they came as well.

When he retires, though, Kitch said, “I will probably install one.”

A lot of people in Moore have done just that since the 1999 tornado killed 43 people in the Oklahoma City area. Kitch said more than 10 percent of Moore’s homes — about 2,500 — now have a safe room or shelter. Helping homeowners make the investment: A federal program that has paid up to $2,000 of the cost.

Every person has to make decisions about what to spend on preparedness for natural disasters. Towns, too, must set building codes and choose whether to restrict the use of cheap building materials. They decide whether to allow development in flood plains and whether to invest in sophisticated emergency equipment.

These are all down payments on the cost of a disaster. Every dollar spent on preparedness saves $4 in recovery costs, according to a report by the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Multihazard Mitigation Council, which others confirm. That’s $4 taxpayers won’t have to spend.

The burden of disaster recovery is growing. In the 1950s, disasters in the United States caused a combined $53.6 billion in insured losses, according to an assessment by the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1990s, losses reached $778 billion.

Driving up the costs are population growth and urbanization. And the insurance industry is balking. Private insurers, stung by huge costs of doing business over the last decade, have stopped writing policies for some areas or charge such high premiums that people decide to take their chances. Even the National Flood Insurance Program won’t insure against flooding in some areas.

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