Opinion

In wake of latest Andover tornado, a newfound appreciation of risk in Kansas and beyond

May 2, 2022 3:33 am
Friday's tornado in Andover reminds us that the chance of bad things happening must be accepted as an inevitable part of existence, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone. The good news? We don’t have to do this alone. (Submitted by Gov. Laura Kelly's office)

Friday’s tornado in Andover reminds us that the chance of bad things happening must be accepted as an inevitable part of existence, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone. The good news? We don’t have to do this alone. (Submitted by Gov. Laura Kelly’s office)

Few events shaped my childhood like the one-two punch of the Hesston tornado in 1990 and the Andover tornado in 1991. My family lived only 18 miles away from Andover, and the notion that a storm could descend from nowhere and wreak destruction terrified me.

Those memories flooded back Friday night, when another powerful tornado ripped through Andover. More than 1,000 buildings were in its path, but apparently no one was killed.

Living in Kansas requires a peculiar balance of going about one’s spring business as normal while understanding that April and May carry the random risk of powerful storms. Those of us who have lived in the state for a while absorb and live with that. But it can still be jarring to see the tornado actually descend, to see damage actually stretching from one end of a street to the other. It can still be jarring to understand that yes, that could be us.

The key sound of this season is the tornado siren, that oscillating wail threading through thunder. For some, it’s the signal to retreat underground.

For others, it’s an exciting opportunity to run outside with a cell phone on camera mode, ready to capture any random cloud rotation. Kansans, it should be noted, don’t have many other opportunities to court dangers.

At least, that’s the way it seemed once upon a time.

Many of us have spent the past two years — or longer — thinking about risk. The COVID-19 pandemic was a constant opportunity to evaluate your risk for contracting the virus. Once you finished that, you could gauge the relative risk factors of your friends and families. How could you reduce your own risk? How could you reduce theirs? And how would you react if the virus, as viruses do, spread anyway?

Many of us have spent the last two years — or longer — thinking about risk. The COVID-19 pandemic was a constant opportunity to evaluate your risk for contracting the virus. Once you finished that, you could gauge the relative risk factors of your friends and families. How could you reduce your own risk? How could you reduce theirs? And how would you react if the virus, as viruses do, spread anyway?

– Clay Wirestone

As the pandemic recedes from public view, that risk mindset remains at the forefront of public debate and discussion. What risk do would-be fascist and former President Donald Trump and his supporters pose to the country? What risk do Vladimir Putin and Russia pose to the post World War II global order? What will happen to women across the United States (and in Kansas) if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade?

So many of our choices and opportunities can be seen as risk calculations. If we desire, we can assign arbitrary numbers and declare relative possibilities of different outcomes.

But what good does it do?

At least with tornado season, Kansans understand a few basics. Have a plan and follow weather forecasts. Take shelter when the siren sounds. Don’t chase the tornado in your car to take pictures. Even then, however, you’re at the mercy of nature.

We can only manage so much risk on our own. Beyond that, the chance of bad things happening must be accepted as an inevitable part of existence. No one likes to focus on these possibilities, and many will fight mightily against the prospect that much of our lives proceed outside the realm of our direct control.

These thoughts whirled around my mind three decades ago, after the first Andover tornado. They were a lot for an elementary school student to process.

They returned to my mind this weekend, after the second Andover storm. They are still a lot to process. Nothing is promised or guaranteed to any of us; we must simply stride into the future unafraid and ready for whatever happens.

The good news? We don’t have to do this alone.

We all live in communities — our families, our workplaces, our towns, our states. We do not face the risks alone, although sometimes it may feel that way. And while no one can control the outcomes of every single obstacle we face, we can all do our best to prepare. In the aftermath of an event like the Andover tornado, we can come together to offer help.

Humans can care for one another. We can love one another. That’s a risk too, as we open ourselves up to the emotions and burdens of other human beings.

This, at least, is a risk worth taking.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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