Until quite recently the terrain where this disaster occurred was an agricultural landscape. Urban sprawl, or if you will, ex- urban sprawl had placed tens of thousands of unfortunate people in the path of destruction. Did they have to live there? Isn't building in the path of killer tornadoes something like building on a sand dune, or a river bottom or the side of a volcano?
I often wonder why we find ourselves in the places where we end up. My moves across this country from Chicago to Iowa to Alaska to San Francisco and finally to Boston were dictated by education, love, and work. Too bad for me I have chosen the most expensive places to live for most of my adult life. This is not necessarily because I have the means to live in San Francisco or Boston. But these places seem like the only reasonable choice. I am a seriously underpaid professor, not rich by any standards considering my level of education, but relatively wealthy compared to many Americans. My guess is that people move to the exurbs for more living space with less of a price tag. We threw out our car several years ago because we can walk pretty much every place we need to go. I know that the people in Moore, Oklahoma have to drive. I know that gas is not cheap anywhere. So maybe what I pay for rent and public transportation and urban crowding is somewhat offset by the expenses people face out there to drive their vehicles.
Is it a question of economics alone? I tend to doubt it. Part of the "American dream" is the pursuit of a lifestyle that you feel comfortable adopting. I might not feel any more comfortable in Moore than those people would feel in Cambridge. But I don't know. Recently, I've been thinking about moving to a warmer climate. Maybe someplace not as prone to rising sea levels as where we live here in Boston. Believe it or not Texas has been high on my list. But wherever I move, I won't choose to live in sprawl. I prefer to have less rather than more dependence on the vehicle. I prefer to live in a more diverse community. And wherever I live, though the museums and libraries may not match Boston, I want to be close to some cultural amenities.
Why this riff on culture? Isn't the most important thing to have a roof over your head? I guess some of my thoughts about sprawl really coalesced after this latest tragedy. As we build communities in far-flung regions at great distances from urban areas, we put ourselves increasingly in the path of destructive storms like a tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma. It's a known fact that dense urban buildings disrupt the atmospheric flow dynamics that breed tornadoes. Urban heat islands, for better or for worse, also change the heat exchange conditions that bring about tornado activity. But a few subdivisions out on the flat prairie do nothing to block storm dynamics. Like a house on a sand dune, they are right in the line of fire.
As we mourn the dead, comfort the injured, and rebuild communities like Moore, perhaps we should ask the same kinds of questions that followed Hurricane Sandy. Should we continue to build in these high-risk zones? Should we continue to fund private and federal insurance for these places? What are the real but hidden costs of building in places like Moore, in terms of loss of farmland, dependence on fossil fuels, and greenhouse gas emissions? And what are the social costs? Living out in the sprawling exurbs we choke public transportation and other infrastructure amenities that come with denser lifestyles. We "escape" diversity. And we weaken the society as a whole while finding "freedom" in the great but dangerous exurb utopia.