No local ordinance requires shelters in Moore

  • Article by: JOHN SCHWARTZ New York Times
  • May 21, 2013 - 11:46 PM

The website for Moore, Okla., recommends “that every residence have a storm safe room or an underground cellar.” It says below-ground shelters are the best protection against tornadoes.

But no local ordinance or building code requires such shelters, either in houses, schools or businesses, and only about 10 percent of homes in Moore have them.

Nor does the rest of Oklahoma, one of the states in the storm belt called Tornado Alley, require them — despite the annual onslaught of deadly, destructive twisters like the one on Monday that killed at least 24 people, injured hundreds and eliminated neighborhoods.

It is a familiar story, as well, in places like Joplin, Mo., and across the Great Plains and in the Deep South, where tornadoes are a seasonal threat but government regulation rankles.

In 2011, a monster tornado razed large parts of Joplin, killing 160 people in a state that had no storm-shelter requirements. The city considered requiring shelters in rebuilt or new homes but decided that doing so would be “cost prohibitive” because the soil conditions make building basements expensive, assistant city manager Sam Anselm, said. Even so, he estimated that half the homes that had been rebuilt included underground shelters. Schools were being rebuilt with safe rooms, he said.

In Moore, the website explains that the city has no community shelter because a 15-minute warning is not enough time to get to safety and because, “overall, people face less risk by taking shelter in a reasonably well-constructed residence.”

This is generally true, but not for a storm like Monday’s mile-wide tornado, which was a terrible reminder of a tornado that caused extensive damage on May 3, 1999.

Curtis McCarty, a member of the Oklahoma Uniform Building Code Commission and a builder himself, said the twister Monday would have defeated attempts to resist it above ground. “You cannot build a structure that’s going to take a direct hit from a tornado like that that’s going to stand.”

The city’s website sounds tones that, in retrospect, might seem implausibly optimistic. It says the experience in 1999 — “an extremely unique event weatherwise” — meant that the standard “shelter in place” methods of protection were adequate. If another storm comes, “there’s only a less than 1 percent chance of it being as strong and violent as what we experienced” before.

Larry Graves, a project manager with Downey Consulting, an engineering company in Oklahoma City that works with schools, said buildings had been upgraded with safe rooms in a piecemeal way in recent years. “You’re seeing more of it, but it’s a big funding item,” he said, noting that a school district might reinforce a large common bathroom with concrete or build an extra-strong gymnasium as a shelter.

Without added protection, Graves said, the drill is roughly the same as it was when he was a schoolboy 40 years ago: “They move you into the hallway, and you stay there tucked up and wait it out.”

Construction standards in Moore have been studied extensively. In a study published in 2002 in the journal of the American Meteorological Society, Timothy P. Marshal, an engineer in Dallas, suggested that “the quality of new home construction generally was no better than homes built before the tornado.”

Few homes built in the town after the storm were secured to their foundations with bolted plates, which greatly increase resistance to storms; instead, most were secured with the kinds of nails and pins that had failed in 1999.

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