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Codes Questioned in Tornado's Wake

Thursday, May 23, 2013

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As Moore, OK, struggles to cope with the ruin wrought by Monday's massive tornado, public scrutiny—and some criticism—has focused on local ordinances and building codes that allowed for few sheltering structures during the disaster.

The city of 55,000, just outside of Oklahoma City, was slammed by an EF-5 tornado on Monday (May 20).

Oklahoma National Guard

The EF-5 tornado struck the Oklahoma City surburb Monday (May 20), killing at least 24 people and leveling hundreds of buildings. Winds topped 200 mph.

Officials say at least 24 people, including nine children, died and hundreds of others were injured. The 1.3-mile-wide twister plowed 17 miles, following almost the exact same route as an EF-5 tornado that devastated Moore on May 3, 1999. Winds reached more than 200 miles per hour, and hundreds of structures were leveled.

The full extent of damage caused by the tornado remained unclear, as rescue and recovery operations continued Wednesday (May 22).

Shelters, Basements Missing in ‘Tornado Alley’

Safe rooms, basements or below-ground shelters are recommended in Oklahoma and in states across the Great Plains and South—the region known as “Tornado Alley." But the life-saving protection is not mandated, and relatively few structures have them.

“[N]o 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,” according to a report in the New York Times, citing the city’s website.

May 20 tornado
Ks0stm / Wikimedia Commons

Moore, OK, and other cities across the region known as "Tornado Alley" have no requirements for storm safe rooms or shelters in public or private buildings.

Storms capable of annihilating entire cities and towns are a seasonal threat in Tornado Alley.

Safe rooms built to specifications of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are fortified rooms, often constructed with cinder blocks and filled with mortar and rebar. They can withstand tornado-force winds and storm debris, reports said.

Structures in Oklahoma are generally built on slabs without basements—whereas, in the Northeast, basements are often created because builders need to dig below the frost line, reports said.

Mike Barnett, a custom homebuilder in the Oklahoma City area for 37 years, estimated that just two percent of Moore residents have basements, according to a CNN report. There is a “misconception” that Oklahoma’s high groundwater levels and heavy clay make it too difficult to construct basements, the report said.

Cost also factors into the equation, as do attitudes toward government regulation.

Disaster ‘Waiting to Happen’

Among the structures leveled in Moore were two elementary schools (Plaza Towers and Briarwood), each constructed without storm shelters.

“This catastrophe was literally a probable disaster waiting to happen at any time,” writes architect Richard Thornton, in “Flattened Oklahoma schools not built for Tornado Alley,” on

Thornton says that the schools were built after the 1999 tornado, and that the “school board ignored the architects’ recommendation to include storm shelters in basement levels,” citing cost savings.

tornado damage
Oklahoma National Guard

The full extent of damage caused by the EF-5 tornado remains unclear.

The buildings were believed to have complied with minimum standards of the International Building Code, but building inspectors will check for structural flaws in the coming weeks, Thornton said.

From Oklahoma to Georgia, "conventional" schools have long been constructed in known tornado hazard areas, he noted. He suggests that rebuilding tornado-resistant structures is key.

“Politicians seem to gamble that once hit by a tornado, their town won’t be hit again. It is a fool’s game to play,” Thornton said.

Upgrading, Rebuilding for Safety

Upgrading school buildings to include safe rooms is occurring, albeit piecemeal, in the area, according to Larry Graves, a project manager with an Oklahoma City engineering company.

“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,” he told the New York Times.

Schools and homes in Joplin, MO, were rebuilt with safe rooms after a monster tornado ripped through that city in 2011, killing 160 people, according to reports.

Learning Lessons

Mayor Glenn Lewis of Moore said that after the 1999 twister, the town strengthened building codes, including a requirement that new homes incorporate hurricane braces, the New York Times report said.

White House / Pete Souza

President Obama declared a federal disaster in five Oklahoma counties, noting that the tornado had been “one of the most destructive in history.” He added: “Oklahoma needs to get everything it needs right away.”

“The city has also aggressively promoted the construction of safe rooms and other measures, with more than $12 million from state and federal emergency management funds to subsidize safe-room construction by offering a $2,000 rebate,” according to the report, citing Albert Ashwood, the director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

However, it has been several years since Moore has received any new funding for the program, Ashwood told the news bureau.

Rescue and Rebuilding

Meanwhile, rescue efforts in Moore continued Wednesday morning. Officials said they were continuing to search every property to account for survivors and those missing.

“We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said at a press conference Monday night.

“It was hard to look at so much debris on the ground,” she said. “In many places, homes have been taken away. It is just sticks and bricks. Street signs are gone.”

As the beleaguered city begins the recovery and rebuilding process, national organizations, including the American Institute of Architects, have issued statements of support.


Tagged categories: Building codes; Building design; Good Technical Practice; Government; Health and safety; International Building Code

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