Thursday, April 28, 2011

The next step

As night falls, the death toll from yesterday's super outbreak of tornadoes rises to nearly 300, getting close to the record set by the 1974 outbreak which killed about 330 people (according to this site). Like many readers, I'm praying for those who lost their lives, their loved ones, and all who are affected by this terrible situation. I have family in the Birmingham area; fortunately, they are all fine, though naturally shaken by the scope and destruction of what their community has suffered.

Yesterday's tornado outbreak will take its place in the history books. But it may also cause us to take a look at some assumptions we've been making about tornadoes. I had the chance to attend part of a Texas Severe Storms Association (TESSA) conference earlier this year, and the information was deeply interesting (even if some of it was way above my head from a scientific standpoint). But one thing was said there that I've heard elsewhere about these deadly storms: we can mitigate the loss of life by having good information, by giving people enough time to make survival decisions and get to places of safety, out of harm's way of the swirling monsters bearing down on them at incredible speeds.

Yet in several news reports I've read today, I've learned that people did get good warnings with these storms. The National Weather Service, the various emergency reporting systems, all of them worked exactly as they should have and did an excellent job of telling people that these tornadoes were coming. In fact, according to the news, in some cases people had as much as twenty-four minutes of time to get to shelter from these monster storms.

And that warning obviously saved lives--but it couldn't save everyone. Not when storms might have been half a mile wide or wider in some cases; not when they were bearing down on populated, congested areas; not when there were no available basements, storm shelters, or other places of safety for people to flee to; not when houses were swept completely off of slab foundations as collapsing roofs killed some of the inhabitants. No, advanced warning could do little to save people then.

Which brings me to something I've been considering for some time, especially as a resident of Tornado Alley who lives in a slab-foundation home with no basement and no storm shelter: why do our nation's building codes not require, in all new construction, the building of at least one storm-safe room?

I realize, for instance, that basements are both costly and futile where I live; we have this soil problem which makes basements a poor investment for homeowners and builders alike. Many other parts of the country, including some of the areas affected by yesterday's super outbreak, also have expansive soils. But according to this FEMA bulletin, adding a safe room to a house during construction is relatively inexpensive; adding one later can be more costly (and can't be included into the mortgage, a consideration for most people). Still, few people even realize they can ask a builder to include such a room, and plenty of home builder's don't offer a storm-safe room as an option. Why not?

Of course, even if storm-safe rooms were required for new construction, it would be necessary for such rooms to be added to those existing homes which don't have them. Perhaps some sort of financial or tax incentive could be offered to homeowners to help them with the costs involved in installing a tornado safe room.

Some programs to help do this already exist at the federal level, but these efforts are targeted at building shelters in mobile/manufactured home parks or in some types of federally-assisted housing. I think those are good ideas, especially considering the numbers of tornado deaths and serious injuries usually occurring among residents of mobile or manufactured homes; but if the effort could be spread to include other types of homes, we might be better prepared in the event of another super outbreak of tornadoes.

After the storms of 1974, many considered that such a weather event was likely to be a "once in a century" occurrence. But even considering only the twentieth century there were at least two such super outbreaks; and yesterday's outbreak may rival, in some records, the outbreak of 1925.

We're already saving lives through advanced storm reporting and weather technology. But yesterday's tornadoes, and the rising and terrible death toll, are a reminder that warning people to take shelter from an approaching monster storm only works if people have someplace safe to go.

UPDATE: A quote from this article is telling:

"These were the most intense super-cell thunderstorms that I think anybody who was out there forecasting has ever seen," said meteorologist Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

"If you experienced a direct hit from one of these, you'd have to be in a reinforced room, storm shelter or underground" to survive, Carbin said.



Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I also live in a tornado state. We have a basement, and we have to head down there with our emergency pack at least 6-7 times per year. The sirens here go off even at severe thunderstorm warning, as well as when it escalates to tornado warning. However, whenever people want a law for a safety requirement, expect pushback from those who "love freedom".

LarryD said...

Glad to hear you're okay, Red. I said a quick prayer for you and your family when I saw on The Weather Channel those storms rampaging through Texas.

John E. said...

"However, whenever people want a law for a safety requirement, expect pushback from those who "love freedom"."

Yeah, people who value their freedom are like that - we tend to insist on our right to live in ways that others might not approve of.

Red Cardigan said...

Larry D.--Thanks! Luckily for us, those storms all fired off from the east, missing us completely. I am sincerely glad, even though I don't wish such storms on anybody.

John, what if builders were merely required to offer a storm-safe room as an option to home buyers? If you really want to check a little box saying, in effect, "No, don't build me a room in which I might survive a storm that would otherwise sweep my house off of its foundation; I'd rather have a carpet upgrade..." you could.

The main reason builders don't even bother to bolt homes to their foundations in many places is because the law, via building codes, doesn't require it. But that sort of construction is one of the reasons we're seeing bare slabs with piles of debris on them where homes once stood after the recent storm.

Daddio said...

I'll have to give this one some thought. My first libertarian instinct is to recoil at the idea of such a regulation. But the insurance underwriter in me appreciates the incredible huge benefits realized by building codes in earthquake and hurricane risk zones. See Haiti for a stunning example. Most of what was built in California in the past 30 years would have easily survived that one. But these are much larger financial and life safety risks compared to tornados. Should we require all Mississippi valley flood plain residents to have life rafts on their roofs? Storm
Shelters are relatively inexpensive, have one built if you like.

freddy said...

While I'm normally not a fan of the "pass a law!" mentality, I like this idea. Building codes are still largely local concerns; giving voice to those most affected in the decision making process. The technology of storm shelters has been tried, the physics is sound, and they've been available for years at a relatively low cost. Changing building codes may seem intrusive to some folks, but nobody really misses stuff like knob-and-tube wiring, do they?

John E. said...

Red, I think your checkbox option is a fine idea.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

John and Red have together pointed out the difference between,

(a) a nanny state telling individuals and families what they must do, and,

(b) laws being applied to require commercial operations on which individuals and families depend for necessities of life to offer them the safest possible option.

This is a distinction to remember next time some corporate CEO complains about "red tape" and "government intrusion."

But I have another question. If we get a few more years like this in the next ten, will it sink through the hard heads of those presently in denial that MAYBE our continued pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere MIGHT be killing people? These storms are fueled by heat, just like hurricanes.