Lessons learned from Tornado Alley
As residents of Moore, Okla., sift through the rubble their homes, businesses and lives, the city’s mayor, Glenn Lewis, told CNN that he would push for a law requiring storm shelters or safe rooms in new homes. “Anybody that lives in any tornado area should have [a storm shelter], but it’s just a matter of cost.”
Some local governments in Kansas have taken steps to enact similar legislation, making storm shelter requirements for mobile home parks, but Moore would be the first Tornado Alley community to fully adopt such measures, according to an Omaha World-Herald report. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin says that there would be no similar mandate statewide, according to the Herald. “We aren’t going to require people to do anything, but if someone chooses to do that, we certainly encourage it,” she says.
Lewis says that city officials might only be able to require shelters in new assisted living facilities and apartment complexes because of costs, according to the Herald.
Oklahoma participates in the SoonerSafe incentive program, which includes a federal rebate of up to $2,000 for residents who install shelters. The state uses a lottery-style drawing to select rebate winners from thousands of online applications every year. Moore, a city of 56,000 has approximately 3,000 residential shelters, Community Development Director Elizabeth Jones told the Herald.
While storm shelters could help, there are limits, both practical and financial, to what can be done to make homes disaster-proof. Joplin, Mo., was flattened by a twister similar to Moore’s only two years ago. Joplin has learned that Tornado Alley residents can only do so much to prepare.
“You can design for 250 mph winds, but you can’t design for it economically,” Steve Cope, Joplin’s building and neighborhood supervisor, told the Associated Press. “It’s got to be something that can withstand the impact of a car going 250 miles an hour into a wall and roof, because that’s what happened here. … To build a truly tornado-proof home, people wouldn’t be able to afford to live in it.”
After the EF-5 ranked tornado that killed 161 people, Joplin beefed up its building code, but stopped short of the safe room mandate. This was largely for financial reasons, but also had to do with resident’s distaste for government intervention into private affairs. “We’re talking about an additional $3,000 to $4,000,” Cope told the AP, “Many people thought the additional cost should be up to [residents] to decide. We have folks who don’t want the government to tell them they had to do it.”
Some are opting for safe rooms without a mandate. Cope told the AP some 20 percent of the homes rebuilt in Joplin now include above ground, in house safe rooms. These are usually concrete and steel structures built to withstand winds in excess of 300 miles per hour. For comparison, the most severe ranking tornados, EF-5, reach speeds of 250 miles per hour.
But safe rooms are not the only disaster prevention tools available to those in tornado prone areas. Fred Haan, an engineering professor at Indiana’s Rose-Human Institute of Technology, told the AP that by “raising the level of construction, a lot of the destruction can be significantly reduced.” He said there are many inexpensive ways to make structures safer during tornados.
“Hurricane clips,” which anchor roofs to walls, and walls to foundations, cost a few dollars each and the addition of a few hundred of them can greatly increase the resilience of a house, and double the strength of the roof, Haan told the AP.
Other options include using ring shank nails to reinforce roofs, installing debris-resistant glass in windows and reinforcing house and garage doors.