The Norman Transcript

May 5, 2013

Veterans balance preparedness, practicality during tornadoes, storms

By Michael Fitzgerald
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Few things in nature are less predictable than a tornado. They can form quickly. They strike weirdly, leveling one building while leaving its neighbor untouched. They can fling a car a half-mile and turn a piece of lumber into a wall-piercing missile.

In spring 2011, as a series of tornadoes devastated Alabama, Rita White tracked an EF-5 monster moving over Limestone County, where she works as emergency management director. The tornado was miles from her office in Athens, but her husband was texting her about pieces of tin falling on the roof of their house in the northwest Alabama city.

Also falling from the sky over Athens were blue jeans scattered from a Wrangler factory the tornado had obliterated 77 miles away.

“They do baffling things,” said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.

How do you prepare for a freak of nature? Even people who live in tornado-tested places have mixed feelings about how much is necessary. Tightened building standards and storm shelters are obvious tools to brace for vicious wind and debris, but tornado veterans balance those steps with pragmatism. Rigid building codes and shelters cost money, and the odds of being hit by one of the storms are actually relatively low.

Patterns and planning: While tornadoes are unpredictable — they can happen any time of year, any time of day, and strike all 50 states — they aren’t totally random, either. We’re in the thick of “tornado weather,” March through July, and the storms are far more common in parts of the South, West and Midwest than they are elsewhere.

Tornadoes don’t tend to hit cities, either, if only because of probabilities. There is far more undeveloped land than buildings in the places where tornadoes usually form.

“Most of the time they’re out scaring cows,” says Keith Stammer, director of emergency management for Joplin and Jasper County, Missouri, which withstood a massive EF-5 tornado — the top of the scale, with winds reaching 200 to 250 mph — on May 22, 2011. The storm destroyed a third of Joplin, killed 161 people and caused up to $2.8 billion in damage, making it the costliest tornado on record, according to the National Weather Service.

Jasper County gets more tornadoes than any other part of Missouri, Stammer said, but almost all are weak. The enormous tornado in May 2011 was so unusual — it formed in about a minute and plodded along at a fraction of the speed of the typical tornado that size — that Stammer coined a word for it: “oddball-ness.”

Facing tornadoes in Jasper County and Joplin means planning ahead. Stammer is involved in roughly nine emergency planning drills a year with other agencies and non-profits. The city had participated in a four-hour drill for earthquake response just four days before the tornado hit.

Agencies around the area already know who is responsible for what, and who has what kinds of equipment. There are agreements in place for things like providing shelter with churches and universities. “The disaster scene is not the place to exchange business cards,” said Stammer.

Timothy W. Manning, a deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noted he didn’t need to deploy FEMA’s specialized search-and-rescue teams after the Joplin tornado because local groups did all of that work so rapidly.

Stammer does one thing differently now. He would never have planned for a tornado that large before May 22, 2011. Now, he tells other emergency managers to think big.

“If you’re thinking flooding, think a big flood,” he counsels. “Overwhelm yourself.”

Building codes: Planning to respond to tornadoes and actually building for them are different, however. Model building codes would require contractors to frame houses and roofs that withstand hurricane-force winds. But not all states adopt those models, and the ones that do frequently lower wind standards, according to a study of coastal states last year by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

Even after a tornado, a community may not change building codes for a variety of reasons, including fear from homeowners who were unscathed that their lack of tornado-resistant features could affect their property values.

Joplin has made some small building code changes. A new house must have hardware, called hurricane straps, that secures the roof more tightly. Bolts securing the house to the foundation now have to be placed four feet apart, rather than six. Walls made of concrete or cement need steel reinforcement. Such simple, inexpensive changes should mean that a tornado has to be strong enough to lift up the whole house — not just the roof — before it can do structural damage.

There isn’t good data on how many communities in tornado-prone places require such protection built into new houses. But even in those regions, according to the Insurance Institute, the chances of a house being hit by a damaging tornado could be as low as 1 in 10,000.

Shelter from the storm: One thing Joplin did not do after the May 2011 tornado is require people to add storm shelters or safe rooms. Well-built shelters protect people from debris — the main source of death and injuries from tornadoes. But shelters cost $2,500 to $10,000 to build.

Many in Joplin assumed the expense anyway, and the city has especially focused on fortifying community shelters and safe rooms in schools. One engineer estimated Joplin and the region are adding 750,000 square feet of public shelter space – about $120 million worth. That’s enough to harbor 100,000 people.

About half of the homes rebuilt within a year of the tornado included a shelter, according to one official’s estimate. Stammer himself did not have to rebuild but added a shelter anyway, because of how quickly the tornado formed. Stammer said he realized that had the tornado hit at a different point of the day, he would not have made it to his office emergency bunker, where he usually directs storm response.

FEMA has helped cover the cost of residential shelters in some states, but some question the practicality of broader government programs or requirements that would force people to install them.

Kevin Simmons, an economist at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, has analyzed what it would cost for Oklahoma or Alabama to fund shelters for every single household, and found that it would cost Oklahoma between $5 million and $10 million per tornado-related death and Alabama about $40 million per fatality — an expense that may be hard to justify.

That’s because dying from a tornado is only slightly more likely than being killed by lightning. About 70 people a year are killed by one of about 1,200 tornadoes that hit the United States, according to government data. Lightning kills about 54 people a year.

Even in 2011 — a horrible year with 500 more tornadoes than is typical — the storms killed 553 people. Car accidents, meanwhile, killed about 690 people per week in 2009, and that was an unusually low number.

“If you’re going to force people to spend money, is it logical to force them to spend an extra $10,000 on a house when their biggest risk is dying in a car?” said Tim Reinhold, chief engineer at the Institute for Business and Home Safety.

For anyone who’s been through a tornado, perhaps the real value of a shelter is peace of mind.