From our elected officials and our local celebrities to those survivors affected directly by the most current crisis, some version of these words gushes out each time: “You can replace things, not lives. We’re going to rebuild. Oklahomans are a resilient people.”
The adjective “resilient,” in particular, has become the word du jour following a disaster. After the May 20 tornado in this area, Gov. Mary Fallin, The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, country singer Toby Keith and undoubtedly countless others all used the word publicly to describe Oklahomans.
In a Good Morning America interview following the Moore tornado that killed 25 people, Fallin said, “Oklahoma has gone through this a couple times, and we’re resilient, strong, courageous people.”
It has been said like this before by Oklahoma governors and will probably be said by governors after her.
This is not to criticize Fallin’s comments, which were obviously meant to comfort, but does the overuse of resilient to describe Oklahomans cause more than just a cringe or two among some people when they hear this all-too familiar word after a severe weather event? Can it also obscure larger issues posed in the aftermath of weather disasters here?
Of course, there is no denying that anyone who survives a major weather disaster and then puts their life back together is resilient, but does that make them more resilient than everyone else? Recorded history is filled with resilient people, from the terribly persecuted to the cruelly tortured, from former slaves to former prisoners of war. Resiliency is a human attribute, not a special Oklahoma attribute caused by disaster. Just ask New Yorkers who survived the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center or anyone who survived the horrific 2011 Japanese tsunami.
Yet the overused resiliency narrative is as much a part of our Tornado Alley weather disasters as the storms themselves, which kill and destroy on a regular basis. Oklahomans are so resilient, the narrative goes, they will rebuild and rebuild again.
We’re approaching the six-month mark of rebuilding after this latest catastrophe.
What about other issues that emerge more slowly and with fewer clichés after a weather disaster?
Should the state require storm shelters in schools or help build them? Should local cities build public shelters? The resiliency narrative can limit discussion of these issues because it presupposes, in a sense, that because of their special resilient nature, Oklahomans will just keep on, well, keeping on, being resilient even after the next tornado and the one after that hits.
There’s no question Oklahoma faces many challenges when it comes to extreme-weather preparedness, and there are a couple of initiatives underway, but one thing leaders here could do is expand the resiliency narrative in the immediate aftermath of destruction and despair to include actual actions that might be taken before the next storm hits.
Kurt Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.
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