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.