A Nation of Gamblers

Following last week’s calamitous tornado that flattened a significant chunk of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people, we found that one reason for the high fatality count was a lack of storm shelters in some of the elementary schools in the twister’s path.

Of the 24 dead, ten were children, seven of whom had been huddling on the ground floor of Plaza Towers Elementary, which did not have a basement.  Some Oklahoma schools have emergency shelters for such severe climatic events, but because the state does not mandate them and they can be quite expensive to build—sometimes as much as $1 million apiece—many more have chosen not to bother.

Helen Grant, a resident of Moore, is rather annoyed by her state’s shelter-optional policy, saying, “I don’t think you can put a price on human life.”

In point of fact:  Yes, you jolly well can, and we Americans do it all the time.  Be it through our healthcare system or the ways we allocate funds for police and fire departments, we reveal what we truly value in our lives.  Very often, ensuring the preservation of those lives is not terribly high on the list.

Perhaps an even more germane fact of life that the situation in Moore underlines, however, is the collective gambler mentality that leads us to expend neither enough cash nor enough attention on the sorts of projects that would do all of us some good.

Another unfortunate event of last week was the collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River near Mount Vernon, Washington, just in time for Memorial Day weekend.  As the high-traffic holiday approached, we were informed (as if we couldn’t have guessed) that roughly 11 percent of all U.S. bridges are currently categorized as “structurally deficient.”

Why does the Greatest Country in the World allow this to happen?

Well, of course, there are many reasons, most of them involving either money or the nature of bureaucracies, or both.

However, I would postulate the “real” reason—the one undergirding all the others—is precisely the reason New Orleans did not have decent levees in August 2005 or certain neighborhoods in the Bay Area could not withstand the 1989 earthquake.

It’s because Americans don’t think anything bad will ever happen to them—individually and collectively.

No catastrophic twister had struck the greater Moore area for quite some time, so why not assume that one never would again?

New Orleans had not completely drowned as the result of a hurricane in any of our lifetimes, so surely the city was immune.

I have never become seriously ill or broken any bones, so why should I bother buying health insurance?

My car made it over the bridge today.  Why shouldn’t the same be true tomorrow?

We are a nation of happy delusions, a people with a little too much faith in ourselves and the components that physically hold our country together.  Whenever possible, we avoid making investments that might possibly not pay off, assuming in the meanwhile that everything will turn out for the best.

We might not necessarily fashion ourselves invincible, but we put tremendous stock in the notion that we are lucky.

The problem here is that, historically speaking, we are.  And probably more so than we realize.

Every violent storm that causes great damage is a reminder of all the storms that do not, just as the stray meal that gives you acute indigestion makes you more fully aware (and appreciative) of how, most of the time, the human body really does run like a well-oiled machine—even when it really shouldn’t, considering all the unholy junk we shovel into it.

If we are ever to take seriously the daunting national project of upgrading our infrastructure—”investing in the future,” as politicians often put it—we will need to alter, in fairly dramatic ways, how we think about the world around us, abandoning the wishful thought that what works today will still be working tomorrow and forever more.

The unfortunate fact, I fear, is that we will need a lot more disasters to befall us before we truly get the message.  What is more, the disasters will need to be more evenly distributed across this great republic, because the dirty little secret—that is, the one everyone knows—is that most people don’t care about preventing bad things from happening until they happen to them.

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