Oklahoma Tornado Prompts Discussions on Surviving, Rebuilding

The Moore, Okla., tornado raised many public policy concerns, including those involving schools and storm shelters.

by Claire B. Rubin and Ann Patton / July 15, 2013
The Moore area was struck by an EF5 tornado on May 20, 2013. Photo courtesy of Andrea Booher/FEMA

Editor’s Note: While the authors were preparing this article, tornadoes occurred on May 31 in El Reno, Okla. This occurrence has raised a different set of interrelated issues, including behavioral, warning and communications questions. It warrants a separate analysis and demonstrates the increased need for comprehensive, sustained discussion about sheltering issues during tornadoes and wind events.

When Scott Lewis heard that a tornado was headed toward his neighborhood in Moore, Okla., on May 20, he rushed to a nearby elementary school and grabbed his 9-year-old son, Zack. They dashed the two blocks home, dropped into the blackness of their tiny safe room under the garage floor, and slammed the rusty door shut. 

They had just one minute to spare before the massive tornado obliterated their home, like the rest of their neighborhood, down to the slab.

Scott and Zack Lewis were safe. But back at Plaza Towers Elementary School, many were not as lucky. Even though teachers took students to the safest places and shielded them with their own bodies, there was simply no tornado-safe place in the school. Seven of the second- and third-graders were among the 24 who died when the powerful tornado roared through Moore that day.

The deaths and destruction prompted a debate about how and where to rebuild, and why there weren’t safe rooms in some of the schools.

Many people were riveted to the TV news accounts of a powerful tornado that affected five counties that day, but centered on Moore during the afternoon. Initially viewers were awed by the power of the tornado that resulted in massive damage concentrated on Moore, a small city of about 55,000 people. The tornadic winds, determined to be at the highest level of the tornado scale, EF5, caused a path of destruction 1.3 miles wide and 17 miles long. What made this tornado especially compelling were the images of the search for elementary schoolchildren in two school buildings that didn’t have storm shelters and for residents of homes without safe rooms.  

Most areas in the storm’s central path suffered catastrophic damage. Entire subdivisions were obliterated, and houses were flattened in a large swath of the city. Among the hardest-hit structures were two public schools: Briarwood Elementary School and Plaza Towers Elementary School. Seven died among the 75 children and staff members at Plaza Towers. As of early June, estimates of the tornado’s impact were: 24 deaths; 377 major injuries; 4,000 buildings destroyed; and a damage estimate of $2 billion to $5 billion.

Once National Weather Service meteorologists determined that the tornado was heading toward a populated area, they issued a “tornado emergency,” a rarely used distinction to make it clear that there is an exceptionally dangerous situation pending. These tornadoes have people nationwide talking about the importance of safe rooms.

The tornado hit what is arguably the safe room capital of the world, where thousands have been built in response to five serious tornadoes in the past 15 years. Moore probably has more safe rooms per capita than anywhere else in Tornado Alley. In Moore, there were 3,170 shelters registered, according to Gayland Kitch, emergency management director of Moore.

Experts are certain that deaths and injuries were avoided when many people ducked into their safe rooms to ride out the storm in safety.

Safe rooms are specially engineered, tested and certified. They are armored and anchored to protect from winds up to 250 mph and from a debris spear traveling at 100 mph. They can be built inside or outside, above or below ground, in new or existing buildings. They can be built in a small home closet or pantry, or constructed large enough to hold the students of an entire school.

In many instances in Tornado Alley, safe rooms offer the best option for protection, and sometimes they are the only real option (in a mobile home park, for example). They can serve multiple purposes and greatly increase the odds of survival. Done right, with careful design and installation, they can provide “near absolute protection.”

Following the killer 1999 tornado that affected Moore, FEMA and Oklahoma launched an incentive program to encourage the construction of safe rooms, with FEMA paying 75 percent of the costs for qualified applicants. With $57 million, the state and FEMA have supported construction of 11,386 private safe rooms and another 382 in public buildings. Oklahomans’ quest for safe rooms has been capped only by the available funding.

Moore was ground zero for major tornadoes in 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2010, neighbors sheltered others, allowing some shelters to serve several families. For example, in 2003, one small safe room held a dozen people, three dogs and two cats.

But most people still don’t have access to a safe room for refuge from a tornado. In fact, many do not even have access to a well-built building, especially in older areas. Oklahomans have been slow to embrace stronger building codes.

Given the repetitive tornado experience in Moore and other Oklahoma communities, there are a number of public policy concerns for those communities as well as questions about the need for mitigation action after this latest example of massive destruction.

The city recommends that every resident have a storm safe room or an underground cellar and suggests that below-ground shelters are the best protection against tornadoes. However, no local ordinance or building code requires such shelters in houses, schools or businesses. In fact, only about 10 percent of homes in Moore have them.

Nor does any other community in Oklahoma require such shelters.

To improve safety in severe tornadoes and wind storms, several actions should be taken.

Learn and improve. Texas Tech University completed a rapid technical assessment of on-the-ground performance in the EF5 Moore tornado. This ongoing process of learning from each event continues to produce dramatic improvements in construction and practice. One important finding in this and other major tornadoes was that properly built safe rooms — even those that were built above ground — can withstand EF5 tornadoes.

Build back smarter. Rebuilding and recovery need to emphasize hazard mitigation techniques, such as sturdy building and safe rooms, to save lives and reduce the chances that the same buildings will have to rebuilt, time and again, after repeated disasters. Loss mitigation pays big dividends in future disasters.

Build safer safe rooms.
Guides, standards and codes are now available for the design and construction of safe rooms. Unsafe safe rooms are still being installed by fly-by-night or ignorant builders and vendors. Communities and states need to adopt and enforce the standards and codes. Consumers need to be careful to purchase only safe rooms that bear the NSSA seal of the National Storm Shelter Association to certify that the unit meets safety standards.

Build more safe rooms. A patchwork quilt of public and private funding sources and regulations are needed to expand the stock of safe rooms in Tornado Alley. Much can be done through positive incentives, but in a few rare instances, safe rooms may need to be mandatory in places with extremely high risk. Examples may include mobile home parks, schools, child-care centers, nursing homes, critical facilities that must continue to operate during a disaster and similar places where people are especially vulnerable during tornadoes.

The technology exists to make safe rooms, or at a minimum sturdy buildings, quickly accessible to residents throughout the region. But it will take a new level of commitment on the part of homeowners, businesses, builders, local officials and leaders to provide safe shelter when and where it is urgently needed, and before the next tornado strikes.

The number of tornadoes that occur annually in the U.S. has shown no pattern in recent years, hence, the threat is constant. As noted by a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in a recent CNN article: “The number of tornadoes overall seems to be more variable. In the last three years we have set records for the most tornadoes in 12 consecutive months and the least number of tornadoes in 12 consecutive months.”

How many people will move back and rebuild after these huge successive disasters in the past 15 years? Will people rebuild smartly or make the same mistake?

Many human advances arise from disasters. The potential for positive change after the May tornadoes in Oklahoma was summed up well by Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, who said, “We have to stop this cycle of a storm coming along destroying things and we build back the same. That is the official definition of insanity.”

Claire B. Rubin, a researcher and consultant in emergency management in the Washington, D.C., area, heads the firm Claire B. Rubin & Associates. Ann Patton is a Tulsa, Okla.-based writer and consultant specializing in disaster management, urban affairs and grass-roots partnership building.

5 Tornado Myths -- Sidebar

Myth #1:  Attempting to drive away from a tornado is better than sheltering in place.

Fact: Tornadoes don’t follow a specific path and can change direction anytime, so trying to drive away is very risky. Tornadoes can turn a car into a 4,000-pound flying missile, and occupants can be trapped and exposed to debris, rain, hail and dust. Parking in traffic lanes is dangerous and illegal, and stalled cars can block emergency vehicles.

The best place to shelter during a tornado is indoors. If you’re already in your car and a tornado is approaching, stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat or other cushion if possible. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Avoid sheltering under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards and offer little protection against flying debris.

Myth #2:  Not everyone can receive tornado watches and warnings.

Fact: Using a combination of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio and new smartphone weather alerting apps all but assures that you’ll get potentially lifesaving severe weather alert information and other emergency messages on a timely basis. NOAA Weather Radio has delivered reliable watches and warnings for more than 50 years, and the advent of smartphones that can get GPS-based weather alerts have enhanced mobility, speed and accuracy for families in harm’s way.

Myth #3:  Nothing above ground can withstand an EF4 or EF5 tornado.

Fact: It’s entirely possible to harden and stiffen a room to withstand extreme winds (i.e., a small room, steel or concrete, or timber box equipped with a door that’s been tested for pressure resistance and debris impact resistance). The National Storm Shelter Association/ICC 500 standard and FEMA guidelines detail how to fabricate shelters or build safe rooms that give near-absolute life protection, even in an EF4 or EF5.

Myth #4:  Building codes can’t make a difference during tornado outbreaks.

Fact: Even if the tornado is EF4 or EF5, 95 percent of the damage occurs at EF3 and below. Therefore the minimal construction standards required by building codes can make a big difference if they’re adopted and enforced. Moreover, since 90 percent of all tornadoes never exceed EF2, wind-resistant building practices like those in the 2012 International Residential Code can greatly improve building performance during tornado outbreaks.

Myth #5:  We can’t affordably build to withstand tornadoes.

Fact: The National Climatic Data Center estimates that 77 percent of U.S. tornadoes range from EF0 to EF1 ,and 95 percent have wind speeds less than EF3 intensity. A recent cost study revealed that using an average of 50 cents per square foot or $1,000 in metal connectors installed from a home’s roof to its foundation could upgrade a home’s ability to withstand wind uplift from an EF0 to an EF2 tornado.

SOURCE: Federal Alliance for Safe Homes

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