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Karen Zumach put her arm around Jan Carstens as a tree planting marked a year since the tornado in which Carstens’ husband died.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Minneapolis tornado: Cost casts a cloud over safe room's benefits

  • Article by: BILL McAULIFFE
  • Star Tribune
  • May 23, 2012 - 2:12 PM

A year into repairs to more than 3,000 tornado-damaged homes in north Minneapolis, there is still not a "safe room" in sight.

Safe rooms are reinforced interior spaces designed to offer even more protection from tornadoes and hurricanes than basements do. But they're expensive. And across north Minneapolis, residents are even cutting corners on shingles, said contractor Ishmael Israel, chairman of the Northside Residents' Redevelopment Council.

"They're opting for the more economical route," Israel said, adding that typical disaster precautions in the neighborhood now include storing bottled water and having working flashlights and extra batteries.

Although Minnesota had more tornadoes than any other state two years ago, there have been no moves to require protections beyond what's in the state building code, said Mike Godfrey, manager of education, rules and code development for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

The code says residential housing must be able to withstand a three-second gust of 90 mile-per-hour wind. Wind speeds in the tornado a year ago Tuesday were estimated at between 100 and 110 mph. Safe rooms, which can also do double-duty as laundry rooms or bathrooms, are designed to withstand a blow from a 15-pound 2-by-4 fired at 100 mph. Flying debris, such as lumber, is one of the most dangerous features of a tornado. Standard safe rooms also offer overhead protection that basements often do not.

But the code also explicitly aims to balance safety with affordability, calling for design and construction at "the least possible cost consistent with recognized standards of health and safety."

"Is it a good idea for people to be safe in their houses? Absolutely," Godfrey said. "How much can people afford toward that end is another issue."

Let the buyer decide

After a tornado in May 2008 killed a young boy at home in Hugo, some residents asked city officials to consider requiring safe rooms in new homes. Ultimately, the City Council voted to require builders to offer to include them in construction and let the buyer decide. The council was told safe rooms could add between $7,000 and $10,000 to the cost of a home, City Administrator Bryan Bear said.

"Maybe that prices you out of a house you might otherwise be able to buy," Bear said.

Hugo has few safe rooms. The same is true in Wadena, where an EF4 tornado in June 2010 destroyed the high school and more than 100 homes.

The new high school, scheduled to open in September, will include a free-standing safe room that can hold 1,100 people -- more than one-fourth the city's population -- during a storm and serve as a gymnasium at other times. Superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom said it's the only school safe room in the Upper Midwest. It's costing nearly $1.3 million -- $950,000 from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant and $316,000 from local taxpayers. The entire high school is costing a separate $38 million.

Other interior rooms in the school will also serve as tornado shelters, but Dahlstrom said committing to the extra safe room was easy.

"We knew we wanted a safe room where the community would feel safe -- and our kids," she said, adding that many students still get jumpy when storms approach.

Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden noted that the death toll from the devastating 2010 tornado was zero. He attributed that to nearly all the city's residences having basements. There was little discussion after the tornado of making safe rooms required in new or rebuilt housing, he added.

By contrast, nearly 11,000 homes in Oklahoma, and more than 20,000 nationwide have had safe rooms installed with federal grants since 1999. But Minnesota has only three FEMA-funded safe rooms (all public community shelters) -- even though the state had 113 tornadoes in 2010, 48 of them on June 17 -- compared with Oklahoma's 102. (The Minneapolis tornado was one of 31 last year.)

A preference for basements

The prevalence of basements in Minnesota is the main reason safe rooms are rare, officials say, and basements are prevalent mostly because of the need to sink home foundations below the frost line. Much of Oklahoma's housing is built on slabs, without basements. In Minnesota, most mobile home parks require a group shelter.

Lakeville may be Minnesota's safe-room capital, with "several hundred" built into slab-on-grade townhomes, building official Gene Abbott said. The city saw a boom in that kind of home a decade ago, and city leaders decided to require the extra tornado protection in light of the lack of basement protection.

"There was initially some resistance [to the requirement]," Abbott said. "But now a lot of them use it as a selling point."

A FEMA spokeswoman said that basements may not offer the same protection as safe rooms in very strong tornadoes because upper floors can collapse into them, and their walls might also collapse. At the same time, the popular walk-out basement design of many contemporary homes -- even new, tall, infill homes in Minneapolis -- features a basement with only three sides.

"They do present less protection in a storm. That's not even debatable," said Pat Higgins, head of inspections for the city of Minneapolis.

But the safe-room discussion is all about costs and benefits. Many storm watchers and safety experts argue that as the U.S. population expands, particularly in sprawling urban areas, massive property damage from some tornado is inevitable. They also recognize that even in tornado-prone regions, the chances of any one home being hit by a tornado, a tiny feature relative to the landscape, are small.

"I think the built environment has been getting safer for many years," Higgins said. "In this country we don't think about our safety when we're in a building. There's some complacency with that level of safety.

"But how many lives are too many? That's a tough question to answer," he added.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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