The scattered ruins of Moore, Oklahoma, a town devastated for the fourth time in 14 years by a major tornado, are a grim reminder that current building codes can’t do much to prevent property destruction and loss of life, especially when a powerful twister cuts through town.
But the death toll can be dramatically reduced when people take shelter in underground storm bunkers and hardened safe-rooms.
The tornado that carved a path of destruction through Moore took 24 lives. Its winds were clocked at 400 kilometers per hour. With only 15 minutes’ warning, residents fled town or took refuge in the sturdiest corners of their homes or other buildings.
The luckiest were able to climb into underground shelters or move to steel-and-concrete modules in their buildings called safe rooms.
In Moore and other nearby towns, those rooms saved lives. But at two schools destroyed by Monday's tornado, no such shelter was available. Leslie Chapman Henderson is CEO of a non-profit group called the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes
. She's an advocate for tornado safe rooms.
“The safe room is an interior room of the home that that has been reinforced and tested and certified to withstand high wind and debris impact of the type that we’ve just seen happening in Moore, Oklahoma. In fact, we’ve already heard of families and stories of survival of people who were in safe rooms, either above or below ground,” she said.
A safe room can be retrofitted into a closet, bathroom, laundry room or garage, or set below ground.
Moore resident Skye Strouhal watched the tornado’s funnel-shaped cloud approaching and ran with a friend to a neighbor’s underground shelter with minutes to spare.
“It was getting a little too scary for me and I followed him back there into that backyard and we tried to open that cellar and it was locked by a chain, and then they let us in and shortly after that (the storm) was on top of us,” Strouhal said.
Better storm forecasts give people like Strouhal more time to react. But they need someplace safe to go. Buildings can be built to resist strong winds, but not like those in the F-5 tornado that touched down in Moore. Home safety advocate Chapman Henderson says even the building codes that do exist are not widely adopted or enforced.
“There are places at the EF-0, 1 and 2 level where a building code can make a difference. But what we really need here is a combination of both the code and the safe room.”
Most of the ruined structures in Moore had neither. Only one in ten homes in town have tornado safe rooms.
Moore is located in a central U.S. region called tornado alley where these storms are frequent. This is the fourth severe tornado in fourteen years, the second with winds of 400 kilometers per hour, to cut similar swaths through town.
But Chapman Henderson says memories fade. Neither of the two elementary schools demolished this week had safe rooms, which she says could have saved the seven children who died at one of the schools.
“I think we need to focus on our schools, and we need to set a minimum standard of always having a safe room option for students. What we’ve learned here tragically is that is the most important investment that we can make,” Chapman Henderson said.
As its residents prepare to rebuild, Moore’s mayor is pushing for an ordinance to make safe rooms mandatory in all new construction. Similar proposals were made following each of the previous tornado strikes, but none were adopted.