Home can be a refuge. But when natural disaster strikes, hunkering down at home can be a deadly mistake.
All told, 32 of the 53 New Yorkers who died in last fall's Superstorm Sandy drowned, and most of them died at home, according to a report published today in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
They lived in or near a zone of the city that was under a mandatory evacuation order. They drowned when the storm surge flooded homes and cut off escape routes.
Why didn't they leave? Red Cross volunteers gleaned these comments from neighbors and relatives of the deceased: "Afraid of looters." "Thought Hurricane Irene was mild." "Unable to leave because did not have transportation."
Getting people to evacuate when a hurricane or other natural disaster looms is a challenge that has bedeviled public safety officials nationwide for years.
Safety in the face of natural disasters has been on our minds this week because of the devastating tornado in Moore, Okla. People typically have less warning of an approaching tornado than they do of a hurricane like Sandy, making evacuation less of an option. But planning ahead there ups the odds of survival, too. Many homes in Oklahoma don't have basements where people can shelter. But storm cellars or above-ground safe rooms make it more likely that people will avoid injury from debris flung by 200-mph winds, NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
Today's report on Superstorm Sandy doesn't evaluate whether the people who died received evacuation messages, or whether they were offered help getting out after Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered that people leave the area on Oct. 29. Though the report notes that the median age of those who drowned was 62, it does not address how this factors into heeding evacuation warnings.
"Given the inability and unwillingness of some residents to evacuate, additional research is needed to identify barriers and motivators for persons during an evacuation and the effectiveness of interventions designed to assist those persons," the authors conclude.
Up until the 1970s, drowning was the most common cause of death in hurricanes, the authors of the MMWR report said. Better weather predictions and evacuation plans had helped reduce deaths by drowning. But in 2005's Hurricane Katrina, and now with Sandy, drowning has reemerged as the greatest danger.
After drowning, the most common cause of deaths directly caused by the storm was being crushed or struck by debris. The most common cause of indirect deaths, many of which happened after the storm, was from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.
The New York Times has mapped Sandy-related deaths, including the names and ages of those who perished.
And NPR member station WNYC created an interactive map of New York City evacuation zones that can help people figure out what to do in case of hurricanes.
All that's left standing at Kiaya Roper's house in Moore, Okla., is the bathroom. When a tornado struck the town on Monday, Roper was at work at Central Elementary School, her children were at school and her husband managed to ride out the storm by hunkering down in that bathroom.
"God put his hand down on his head for me," Roper says.
Twister-prone Oklahoma can be a challenging place to live. For survivors of the latest storm, that's just proof of how resilient their community will be.
Addressing teachers Wednesday, Moore Public Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce mentioned the Land Rush, the Trail of Tears, the Dust Bowl and "tornado after tornado after tornado." None of those made Oklahomans turn tail and run.
"Some people might say we're stubborn; I say we're tenacious," Pierce said. "We stay because that's who we are and that's what we do."
People such as Roper who have lost homes and all their possessions count themselves lucky, so long as their families survived.
At this early stage in the recovery, they have chosen to focus on the positive — the bravery of rescue workers and first responders, the generosity of people who have come to help or have donated money and goods from far away.
"I can't even describe how helpful people have been," says Sylvia Trillo, sitting outside her wrecked home in Moore.
As in other places beset by tragedy, people in central Oklahoma don't want to be defined by a disaster, but how they have responded to it, says Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, which commemorates the 1995 bombing of the downtown federal building.
"You go on and live life and move forward the best you can," Watkins says. "Because a tornado blows through doesn't mean you don't rebuild or move back."
Remembering May 3
The date May 3 resonates for people in central Oklahoma much in the same way that Sept. 11 does for all Americans. All this week, residents have been referring back to the outbreak of tornadoes on May 3, 1999, that devastated Moore and other communities.
"We've done it before, so we were ready to go," says Kyle Duncan, business administrator of the First Baptist Church in Moore, which is serving as a shelter and major staging ground for insurance agents and adjusters, as well as for donated goods.
No one knew Monday morning that they'd need to come help out at the church, but dozens of volunteers have shown up every day since.
"We don't do drills or anything, but it's definitely still in the minds of the people," Duncan says.
Oklahoma Banking Commissioner Mick Thompson, who was visiting the church, also applauded how people responded immediately to a less damaging tornado that struck the town of Shawnee on Sunday.
"By the time they were reporting it, we had people out on tractors moving stuff," he says. "They'll need government assistance, but they didn't wait on government to help. They were out doing things for people before the storm even passed."
Can't Fight The Weather
There's an old joke that everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.
In Oklahoma, they've accepted that there's nothing human beings can do.
"We do live here in central Oklahoma pretty much in the bulls-eye of the traditional Tornado Alley," says John Snow, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma.
But like other residents, Snow points out that there's bad weather practically everywhere — drought and fires and hurricanes. Some have made jokes this week about family members who live in California, for example, and risk "falling into the ocean."
"People in Oklahoma not only endure the weather, they've turned it into a resource," Snow says. He notes that wind farms that send electricity as far away as Alabama and the fact that his own campus is home to the National Weather Center, which serves to predict storms throughout the country.
"We had another tornado, and OK, we'll rebuild," Snow says.
Needing To Move Mountains
In a benediction, Lori Walke asked the gathering of teachers Wednesday to pray to a "god of rebuilding."
It's been a common prayer this week. Family, jobs and other ties have prompted most people to insist that they will stay, although a few are reluctant to rebuild in exactly the same spot.
There's pride in having survived so many killer storms and having responded with generosity and resolve.
"It's amazing what we go through and what God can bring us through," says Moore resident Daniel Iverson, who ends an interview with a reporter so he can go fetch oxygen for his mother.
Pride and faith are helping people pull through, as they cope with shock and begin to count up their losses.
"You need that right now," says Victor Rook, a computer and math teacher at Central Junior High. "You need to feel like you can move mountains because you have mountains you need to move."
There's no room at the inn for the Degmans. Not the Days Inn, anyway.
Jim and Marilyn Degman didn't suffer significant damage to their home in Monday's storm, but they lost power and decided to seek shelter elsewhere. They tried two other places before they found a La Quinta Inn & Suites that would admit Angel Baby, their toy poodle.
"I think she's a little more traumatized than we are, because of her routine," Jim says. "She can't go to her home."
For some people, pets are just animals, but for others, they can become like members of the family. No one wants to leave their dog or cat behind to perish in the rubble.
Kathy Hughes, a teacher in Oklahoma City, was vastly relieved when she found out her parents were able to bring along Gracie, her gray terrier, when they fled the home they share in tornado-stricken Moore, Okla. "I'm crying because I didn't think I had a house to go back to and I thought they'd left the dog behind," she says.
Footage of Barbara Garcia finding her dog while being interviewed by CBS has become one of the most widely shared individual stories on social media out of the storm in Moore. Many people in the area have been saddened by the losses suffered at a local horse farm.
There are half a dozen temporary shelters set up for lost animals. People are dropping off animals who are either injured or so healthy you wouldn't know anything had happened to them, says Kristi Scroggins, a veterinarian volunteering her time at a shelter at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds in nearby Norman.
About 60 dogs have been brought to the shelter, along with a handful of cats. The dogs come out when they hear people's voices, while cats stay put at the sounds of chainsaws and other unfamiliar noises, says veterinary technician Jessica Manzer.
The shelter is loaded with piles of kitty litter and bleach, paper towels and Milk-Bones. The animals are put in crates and assigned generic identifiers such as "#31 Shepherd Mix" or "#55 Choc Lab."
One cat at the shelter, a sleepy-eyed tabby named Popeye, belongs to a woman who died in the storm. Volunteers are attempting to find the family to see if anyone will take Popeye home.
About 10 animals there have been reunited thus far with their owners. Those who aren't claimed likely will be put up for adoption after 30 days, Scroggins says.
"This is a great reminder for people to microchip their pets," she says. "They can lose collars, but the microchips don't go anywhere."
Two Norman residents brought in dogs Wednesday night, saying that their own dogs wouldn't like it if they gave a home to the strays. Both animals appeared healthy, though Jen Elsner says the little dog she brought in was clearly hungry and a little dehydrated.
The shelters are sharing information with one another, seeking to match pets with their owners. Many people have stopped by to fill out forms looking for animals such as guinea pigs, parrots and other animals, something the volunteer staff seems to believe is wishful thinking at this point.
But they all are moved when people are reunited with their animals.
"It's pretty amazing anything could survive what happened, but animals are pretty resilient," Manzer says.
President Obama on Thursday unveiled a major pivot in White House counter-terrorism policy, calling for a limiting of CIA drones strikes and for a renewed effort to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Speaking at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., the president said the death of Osama bin Laden and most of his top lieutenants meant and the fact that there had been no large-scale terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, meant that a new policy was in order — one that concentrated on capturing, rather than killing terrorist suspects.
"America is at a crossroads," he said. "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison's warning that 'No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'"
"Today, the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat," the president said. "Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11."
"We must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," the president said.
Obama said that the U.S. operation in Pakistan against bin Laden "cannot be the norm."
"The risks in that case were immense; the likelihood of capture, although our preference, was remote given the certainty of resistance; the fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties, or embroiled in an extended firefight, was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces - but also depended on some luck," he said.
Referring to the administration's decision to acknowledge for the first time that U.S. citizens, including senior al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki and three others, had been killed in drone strikes, he said he authorized the declassification of the information "to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue, and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims."
"For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen - with a drone, or a shotgun - without due process. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil," he said.
The president said that he was "implementing every recommendation of the Accountability Review Board which found unacceptable failures in Benghazi" and had asked Congress to full fund efforts to "bolster security, harden facilities, improve intelligence" at U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad.
Referring to the Justice Department's subpoena of journalists' phone records as part of a leak investigation, he said he was "troubled" that it could result in a chilling of investigative journalism.
"Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs," he said. "Our focus must be on those who break the law. That is why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government over-reach."
Obama said maintaining the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay was both expensive and problematic.
"During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people — almost $1 million per prisoner."
He said that as president, he had transferred 67 detainees from Guantanamo to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to prevent it.
"These restrictions make no sense," he said. "No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons here in the United States — ever. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism-related offenses, including some who are more dangerous than most [Guantanamo] detainees."
Given his administration's "relentless pursuit" of al-Qaida's leadership, "there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened," he said to applause.
The applause was quickly followed by a heckler.
"Ma'am, let me finish," the president said after the unidentified woman interrupted his speech for the second time. "Part of free speech is you being able to speak, but let me speak, too."
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