April 12, 2011 Joplin editorial: Storm Shelters Needed
May 25, 2011 7:49 AM   Subscribe

On April 12th, prior to the Alabama outbreak and about 6 weeks before a tornado tore through the middle of mostly basement-less Joplin, MO, Colleen Bogener wrote a short editorial on the need for public storm shelters in Joplin. There was a short bit of discussion in response.
posted by spock (71 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
"It would be an unconscionable waste for our government to build shelters that will probably never be used. On the other hand, if the author feels strongly about it, there is nothing preventing you from building your own shelter."
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:52 AM on May 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


Still, some of the comments make good points. You're in downtown Joplin. You have five minutes to find shelter. What do you do?

A distributed network of shelters (ie, one per business or family residence) makes more sense. Why do so few of these places have basements?
posted by SPrintF at 7:57 AM on May 25, 2011


And Eric Cantor is asking where the money should come from (out of the fed budget) to give relief to the various tornado stricken places.

Hmm. Like Texas and the wildfires, if you want to preach small, hands off government, you really shouldn't ask for help when TSHTF..
posted by k5.user at 7:58 AM on May 25, 2011 [17 favorites]


Now wait, you can't honestly expect so-called fiscal conservatives to be consistent, can you? No, of course not. That would just be silly. What, are you some kind of eurocommie?
posted by aramaic at 8:00 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're in downtown Joplin. You have five minutes to find shelter. What do you do?

There have to be some innovative solutions to tornado shelters. And if there aren't, it's time to put the brightest people on the job.

What would it take to make a low cost, extremely safe, personal tornado shelter? I guarantee it's not impossible.
posted by pwally at 8:01 AM on May 25, 2011


What would it take to make a low cost, extremely safe, personal tornado shelter?

Were it me, I'd look into the "personal bomb shelters" used by the North Vietnamese during the bombing of the Hanoi area. Basically a concrete tube with a lid.

...problem: flooding? And naturally people would insist on using them as impromptu toilets, corpse disposal shafts (sorry, I mean "innocence tubes") and trash cans. Plus they were thought up by godless commies, so there's that.

But still, very cheap and widely dispersed.
posted by aramaic at 8:06 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It would be an unconscionable waste for our government to build shelters nuclear missiles that will probably never be used. On the other hand, if the author feels strongly about it, there is nothing preventing you from building your own shelter."

Obviously, there's several other alternatives that could be dropped in, mostly in relation to Big Defense. That said, why doesn't Joplin have a requirement for basements/shelters in the zoning laws? That seems like the first step.
posted by Crash at 8:07 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


the Mythbusters did an episode on tornados, and, indeed, made a portable personal tornado shelter (here for youtube). it wasn't rated high enough for the tornado that went through Joplin and you still have to figure out what to do about debris, though.
posted by mrg at 8:08 AM on May 25, 2011


What would it take to make a low cost, extremely safe, personal tornado shelter?

Why "personal"? Why not just put basements in your buildings? The great thing is they are useful even during non-tornados.

*Everyone* in Iowa has a basement (or did 20 years ago when I lived there) for pretty much exactly this reason. Of course, we always joked that if we gave the bottom two rowes of counties to Missouri, the average IQ of both states would go up...
posted by DU at 8:09 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


You have five minutes to find shelter.

You have assumed a premise. Even if you assume that premise, people within 5 minutes radius of that shelter have a significantly improved chance of safety. Multiply that by the number of shelters and you have done good.

However the premise is wrong. The tornado warning for Joplin occurred 20 minutes prior to it entering city limits. In the Greensburg, KS F5 they had 25 minutes of warning. Warning times are generally improving. The willingness of people to think that they personally have to heed those warnings is not.
posted by spock at 8:09 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I find it sad/humorous that no one seems to object to the Federal Governments paying for the "pound of cure" but rarely for an "ounce of prevention".
posted by spock at 8:13 AM on May 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


"On the other hand, if the author feels strongly about it, there is nothing preventing you from building your own shelter."

Hi, I'm a Glenn Glibertarian! I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps, and I can remove my own appendix, while providing myself a blood transfusion from myself! I can do it all for myself -- and I damn sure won't do anything for anyone else --, just keep my taxes low!
posted by orthogonality at 8:15 AM on May 25, 2011 [17 favorites]


If only you could make an emergency human hamster ball that fit into your pocket, that would inflate when a string is pulled.
posted by Big_B at 8:18 AM on May 25, 2011


Anything that doesn't personally affect me or mine is not any problem at all. Once it does, it's an outrage that someone must answer for.
posted by Legomancer at 8:19 AM on May 25, 2011 [37 favorites]


By the way I didn't mean that in poor taste. I'll spare the details but we have friends of family members right now trying to find the rest of their family after a tornado destroyed their home yesterday.
posted by Big_B at 8:21 AM on May 25, 2011


one wonders whether any of these people survived.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:22 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Mythbuster tornado suit was pretty cool to watch. It seems designed to protect you from airplane engines and not tornado's though. Wouldn't a tornado's wind direction change while you're in it? If the wind came from the backside, it looks like it would just rip the suit away.
posted by Crash at 8:23 AM on May 25, 2011


You're in downtown Joplin. You have five minutes to find shelter. What do you do?

What do you do?

In a house with a basement: Avoid windows. Get in the basement and under some kind of sturdy protection (heavy table or work bench), or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping bag. Know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above (pianos, refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.) and do not go under them. They may fall down through a weakened floor and crush you.

In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an apartment: Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands. A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection. Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail.

In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper:Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building -- away from glass and on the lowest floor possible. Then, crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.

In a mobile home:Get out! Even if your home is tied down, you are probably safer outside, even if the only alternative is to seek shelter out in the open. Most tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes; and it is best not to play the low odds that yours will make it. If your community has a tornado shelter, go there fast. If there is a sturdy permanent building within easy running distance, seek shelter there. Otherwise, lie flat on low ground away from your home, protecting your head. If possible, use open ground away from trees and cars, which can be blown onto you.

At school:Follow the drill! Go to the interior hall or room in an orderly way as you are told. Crouch low, head down, and protect the back of your head with your arms. Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and auditoriums.

In a car or truck: Vehicles are extremely dangerous in a tornado. If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Otherwise, park the car as quickly and safely as possible -- out of the traffic lanes. [It is safer to get the car out of mud later if necessary than to cause a crash.] Get out and seek shelter in a sturdy building. If in the open country, run to low ground away from any cars (which may roll over on you). Lie flat and face-down, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.

In the open outdoors: If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can; they may be blown onto you in a tornado.

In a shopping mall or large store: Do not panic. Watch for others. Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows.

In a church or theater: Do not panic. If possible, move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or hallway, away from windows. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms. If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms or hands.

posted by Comrade_robot at 8:24 AM on May 25, 2011 [9 favorites]


If the storms keep getting worse, perhaps the building codes in affected areas will be changed, i.e. residents of the Midwest will start living underground. I think I got that idea from either Bruce Sterling or T. Coraghessan Boyle.
posted by mecran01 at 8:24 AM on May 25, 2011


i.e. residents of the Midwest will start living underground.

My son and I toured the U of Minn. campus in Minneapolis recently, and you'd be surprised how much of that campus, dorms included, is underground. According to the student who was leading the tour, you can, in the middle of winter, manage to schedule the right classes and live in the right dorm, and never have to wear anything more than a T-shirt and shorts.
posted by thanotopsis at 8:28 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Why do so few of these places have basements?

It depends upon the water table in your area. In some places if you dig a hole for a basement you will have it fill (or partially fill) with water (equal to the top of the water table). Other areas may be very rocky beneath the topsoil, where the cost of "digging" is prohibitive/impractical.
posted by spock at 8:32 AM on May 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Why do so few of these places have basements?

I'm curious about this as well. I moved to southern Illinois a couple years ago -- roughly the same tornado susceptibility as southern Missouri -- and was shocked at how many of the houses my wife and I didn't have basements. Our real estate agent didn't really have an answer; they just mostly don't have them. We bought a house with a basement and have already hid out in it during half a dozen tornado warnings.
posted by aaronetc at 8:32 AM on May 25, 2011


Do shelters even work against the F5 she was worried about? We're talking about "steel reinforced concrete structures badly damaged."
posted by smackfu at 8:33 AM on May 25, 2011


one wonders whether any of these people survived.

Probably, since Joplin has 50,000 residents and the freak tornado killed 124 (0.25%).
posted by smackfu at 8:35 AM on May 25, 2011


I think a more interesting question to pose is "why do houses in (name a place) have basements?" I am a big fan of the extra storage and utility of basements, but given the extra cost, waterproofing, etc work, THAT cost seems just as cost-prohibitive as the hypothetical costs for excavation in Oklahoma and Texas (where soil is not necessarily rocky or hard to dig into, especially in some of the farm belts).
posted by crapmatic at 8:44 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you go back to Ben Franklin, you come up with this notion:

what good is having enough money to drive a Mercedes Benz if the public roads are nothing but pot holes? There is a private and a public sector. and one without the other just doesn't work right.

Love the comments: the homeless will fill them up; who will clean them? raise taxes for this? build your own.

storm basements: some people I know built homes on slabs rather than having basements because that cut a lot of construction costs...Does there have to be building codes to make sure each private home has a workable shelter?
posted by Postroad at 8:45 AM on May 25, 2011


Do shelters even work against the F5 she was worried about?

The single biggest factor for survival is to be below ground level. Especially for a tornado in a populated area, the devastating effect of any tornado is the debris that is picked up and thrown around making the tornado into a gigantic weed-wacker. You are no longer simply talking about 200 mph winds (for example) but glass, sheet metal, roofing materials, lumber and bricks traveling horizontally at 200mph. These "debris balls" are even seen on radar after a tornado accumulates material.

Your odds of surviving above ground are purely chance. This is the main reason that your bathtub (preferably with a mattress over you) provides your best above-ground chance at survival. The tub is pretty well held down by the plumbing and the metal sides will provide a decent shield from debris.

Once you get below ground, you are mostly protected from the flying debris. You can still be killed in a basement, but usually only by a falling chimney or other large debris being thrown on top of you. You may be temporarily buried, but your odds of survival are incredibly higher than being caught above ground.
posted by spock at 8:47 AM on May 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


I know in my area you hit solid rock a couple feet down, so basements are highly impractical. Blew my mind when I moved here from northern Illinois, where every house had a basement as a matter of course.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:47 AM on May 25, 2011


"... That said, why doesn't Joplin have a requirement for basements/shelters in the zoning laws? That seems like the first step."
posted by Crash at 11:07 AM on May 25

In much of Iowa, the subsoil is 10+ feet of loess. It's easy to dig out a basement, and drainage is good enough, except in river floodplains, that you rarely have basement water problems.

Joplin however, sits mostly on a big ledge of limestone. Nearby Carthage has one of the state's biggest limestone quarries. The depth of soil and likelihood of drainage for housing lots in Joplin varies widely; in some areas, there is enough soil over the limestone bedrock, with adequate drainage, to make basements possible, if not common. But in nearby areas, the limestone ledge is very near the surface. On such property, you'd have to blast a hole for a basement, which is prohibitive in cost, and could only be done at some risk to adjacent structures, limestone being notorious for reflecting/conducting blast energy through its layers in not altogether predictable ways.
posted by paulsc at 8:49 AM on May 25, 2011 [8 favorites]


Do shelters even work against the F5 she was worried about?

A poured concrete underground shelter will provide protection against virtually any tornado. The ones on that site sell for $5000, but you could build an old-fashioned cellar for much less.
posted by General Tonic at 8:51 AM on May 25, 2011


Why not just put basements in your buildings?

In many areas, it's not just a cost issue but it's a result of the water table's height relative to the dwellings. Having grown up in southwest Missouri myself (and also having been trained as a severe weather spotter), I have always required a basement in any home I have purchased. But last year when I was looking to buy in Memphis (which today is under the gun for some really bad storms), I found that only about one in twenty middle-to-high-income-level houses have basements, and this scarcity is because of the high water table in conjunction with the Mississippi River being so near. (Never mind the floods that have come with that proximity this year.) I still finally found a home with an unfinished basement that can be used as a tornado shelter, but it wasn't easy, and virtually no low-income housing with a basement exists here with a basement, and much of the reason is the water table's height rather than just poor planning and finances. (And then, of course, you still might have the problem of blasting through limestone in many places where the water itself isn't an issue.)

Note that many of the most deadly tornadoes and tornado outbreaks have occurred near rivers and in areas with high water tables. Yes, historically population centers have often coincided with river routes so that any direct hit on a population often occured close to a river, but often the numbers of deaths are even higher simply because those same places can't have basements that don't spend a good chunk of their time underwater.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:52 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


There have to be some innovative solutions to tornado shelters. And if there aren't, it's time to put the brightest people on the job.

Yeah, I've heard that one before. That's Republican for "allow a disaster to happen, then open it up for privatized gouging".
posted by interrobang at 8:54 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think a more interesting question to pose is "why do houses in (name a place) have basements?"

Generally because you have to dig your foundations below the frost line to prevent the house from shifting due to heaving ground, and in the Northern states, that becomes quite deep. Example map. A frost line of 40" is over 3 feet which is a pretty big hole for the footings and once you have the excavator out anyway, might as well dig a full basement and get the storage space. And once basements become the norm, it is a lot harder to sell a house without one, so they persist.
posted by smackfu at 8:55 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


The median age of homes in Joplin is 37 years. The median age of residents in Joplin is 34.7 years.

Can we maybe stop blaming the victims of this storm for policy and construction decisions that were largely made before they were born?

It's absolutely appropriate to discuss public policy mistakes that were made by the government at all levels that made people more vulnerable to this storm. It's productive to talk about ways at-risk cities like Joplin can improve building codes in the future. I hope this editorial will be widely read and I hope that the resonance it will undoubtedly acquire as some sort of cassandraic prophecy will make people, especially small-government types, especially in Missouri, think critically and hard about their views on community disaster preparation.

But the comments here basically calling the people of Joplin stupid for having the audacity to live in the sort of homes that are the only sort commonly affordable in that community are not helpful. It's the same sort of victim-blaming that happened after Katrina and it's counterproductive and mean. If the people of Joplin are stupid for living in tornado-prone region in not-so-safe houses that were built by a previous generation then so are the people of California, who keep building cities on faults and the people of Oregon and Washington State and Idaho and Montana and Wyoming who live on top of a supervolcano caldera and the people of Hawaii who live on an tsunami-prone island made out of volcanoes, etc., etc.
posted by BlueJae at 9:07 AM on May 25, 2011 [25 favorites]


That's Republican for "allow a disaster to happen, then open it up for privatized gouging".

Naomi Klein calls that the Shock Doctrine.
posted by hippybear at 9:10 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Are tornado shelters single purpose things that are built and then ignored until a tornado happens? My high school had some underground gymnasiums that were, from the inside, indistinguishable from the above ground gymnasiums that didn't have windows anyway. They'd probably be pretty safe in a tornado (not that Northern BC had tornados, I'm just speculating).

Community centers, parking garages, schools, church basements, etc are all spread throughout their communities already. It seems like it would be more efficient to fund the upgrade of those types of facilities to meet safety standards and use them as shelters than to try to fund and build a bunch of stand-alone shelters. That would seem to counteract the 'who will clean them?' argument -- whoever would otherwise have cleaned the school gym after gym class.

I admit to not knowing a lot about what's needed to withstand tornados, though, so there could be something fundamentally foolish about that.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:15 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Are tornado shelters single purpose things that are built and then ignored until a tornado happens?

As far as private home shelters go, they're commonly used as storage places and root cellars. The image of the angled doors opening on an underground space, like in the beginning of the Wizard Of Oz is based in reality.
posted by hippybear at 9:22 AM on May 25, 2011


thanotopsis writes "U of Minn. campus in Minneapolis"

This campus was built underground for energy reasons; their architecture department was quite innovative in earth sheltered buildings.

smackfu writes "Do shelters even work against the F5 she was worried about? We're talking about 'steel reinforced concrete structures badly damaged.'"

The smaller the steel reinforced concrete structure the better it is able to resist tornado forces. It's very possible to build above ground shelters capable of resisting an F5 where a huge office building or warehouse might be damaged because the shelter is broken up into smaller units rather than having a huge open floor plan.

jacquilynne writes "Are tornado shelters single purpose things that are built and then ignored until a tornado happens?"

They can be but the best shelters are multipurpose. The FEMA plans I've linked to a few times have plans for incorporating safe rooms into the construction of regular residential bathrooms. You wouldn't even notice they are there except for the heavy duty, multi point locks on the door.
posted by Mitheral at 9:38 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


"A system that socialises losses and privatises gains is doomed to mismanage risk."
--Joseph E Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate Economics)
posted by stbalbach at 9:40 AM on May 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


spock: "The single biggest factor for survival is to be below ground level."

The mayor of either Joplin or one of the surrounding towns was on a talking head show last night (maybe msnbc, not sure was just passing through the room), but he was saying that the people in basements in Joplin counted for a significant number of the dead. That class 5 tornadoes break all the rules of tornadoes. He also said that a house with a "safe room", took a direct hit, and everyone in the room survived.

Safe rooms are easy to implement in new construction, but significantly more difficult to retrofit, but I think there was a pretty extensive discussion of safe rooms in the other thread.
posted by dejah420 at 9:50 AM on May 25, 2011


Scroll down a bit on this page for2 photos of what the Home Depot in Joplin looks like today. Basically, it's a big orange pile of debris. At least seven people were killed there.

Think about that. Home Depot. They sell stuff to build and maintain homes and buildings. But their own store was not built either to be tornado-resistant, or to contain a tornado shelter, in an area where tornado risk is high.

Tornado resistant design for homes and commercial buildings is possible at reasonable costs.
posted by beagle at 10:03 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Believe what you like. If you are in a basement, you are in a five-sided safe room constructed of solid ground. Certainly it is still possible to die below ground (as I mentioned), but in the interests of educating people I would still emphasize it as being your first best option. That being said, if you live in an area where below ground shelters are not possible, then having a "safe room" would be better than being without one.

Not to be pedantic, but strictly speaking, tornadoes are not rated - their damage is rated. From that damage certain attributes about the tornado are inferred (wind speed at the ground, width of the tornado damage path, etc.).

http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/satellite/satelliteseye/educational/fujita.html

http://www.spc.noaa.gov/efscale/
posted by spock at 10:08 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have a friend here in the Dallas area who had one of these installed. http://familysafeshelters.com/

It takes up a corner of his garage, and they had a door in the laundry room wall facing the safe room entrance so that they can all go straight into the shelter in minutes. Here are details of their debris testing on the units. Apparently there is a model that they call "Beyond F5", and FEMA also offers rebates for these.

I'm not the safe-room type, myself, but the options certainly are out there.

Basements are not an option in Texas, for all the reasons previously mentioned here.

The core problem is just like we witnessed on the op-ed comments. No one wants to spend a couple thousand on a safe room or a couple million on a community shelter, because "what are the odds? I've lived here for 60 years and our town never had a twister."

It's only after a Home Depot and a hospital and a Wal-Mart and several schools are laid completely to rubble and a few hundred people go missing, that pundits say, "What could have been done?" And at that point, it's always going to be too little, too late.
posted by pineapple at 10:33 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


How many people will be able to get to a shelter? How many people will be outside trying to get to a public shelter? Big-box stores are especially vulnerable precisely because of their large inside open area. Once the building comes apart, it's very hazardous because all the stuff in it becomes airborne. Basement is a lot better than no basement. I guess a bathroom in a basement would be even better. For many houses, this is not very difficult to implement.

I lived near the well-documented 1974 F5 tornado in Xenia, OH. There was a lot of talk about tornado preparedness, and I wonder how much was implemented, and how much of that has persisted. F5 tornadoes are not common, but most of what you do to prepare for a tornado helps you prepare for other emergencies.
posted by theora55 at 10:42 AM on May 25, 2011


You don't need to build shelters for everyone to get to in 20 minutes. You build shelters that make a possible option for many people to go to who are densely peopled places. You don't change building codes to match the worst case scenario - a direct hit by an F5. You change building codes that will save the lives of those who are not directly hit or hit by a less violent tornado. In hurricane prone areas you build for a category 3 landfall, and that is sufficient to ratchet down the level of disaster.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:43 AM on May 25, 2011


beagle writes "Think about that. Home Depot. They sell stuff to build and maintain homes and buildings. But their own store was not built either to be tornado-resistant, or to contain a tornado shelter, in an area where tornado risk is high."

This isn't surprising. Local store managers don't have the capital budget to install storm shelters, Corporate offices don't feel the need to provide protection not required by law.
posted by Mitheral at 11:00 AM on May 25, 2011


I live about 70 miles Southeast of Joplin, and needless to say the tragedy in this area has been horrific. Looking at the pictures, I honestly don't know how anyone survives that sort of disaster.

But the reality of living in this area is that people (myself included) don't heed the weather warnings because they are constant and often inconsequential. It is no excuse, but that is the day-to-day mentality of living in this area.

Where my home sits, higher up in a relatively hilly area, we are very unlikely to suffer a direct hit from a tornado; that being said, the strong winds could certainly produce extensive damage. We have a walkout basement, complete with a 8 foot safe room surrounded on all sides (including the top) by poured concrete. If my home was devastated by such a tornado, the only risk to us would be digging out of the rubble.

Number of times we have gone down to the basement safe room this year? Zero. Tornado watches are weekly (or nightly) occurrences during the spring months. Tornado warnings are fairly common, and in my town we will see some roof shingles taken off, some docks torn up on the lake, if a tornado actually touches down. People just look at their own experience and judge the situation from that, right or wrong.

That night I was eating dinner with my family at a restaurant in Springfield, 60 miles directly East of Joplin. My mother has always been a weather nut, and one of the most aware and weather conscious people you will find; before we knew of the devastation, we were all checking our phones at the table for radar maps, and then when word started to spread (via Twitter, of course), we were looking for information about Joplin. The storm front was just coming in as we were ready to leave, and we decided to not get on the road that evening and make the drive home. But our solution was to go next door to a Barnes and Noble and browse while waiting for the storm to pass. So that very same storm, 60 miles east, resulted in heavy rains while our kids played at a Thomas the Train table without worry. Then once it passed, my kids were amazed by the double rainbow when we got to the parking lot. Just that situation - taking pictures of a double rainbow, not knowing that over a hundred people had died an hour west of us - it still makes me shudder.

Education is key, as is an effective warning system. No matter what, it will depend on people heeding those warnings - the reason this was the deadliest single tornado event in over 50 years is because of just that - these events, at this level, are rare. I've lived here for over 30 years, and there has never been anything comparable to what happened in Joplin. I hope of course that we never see it again. But to blame the building codes, or even the people for not finding shelter, is understating the severe power that this storm held, far beyond anyone's expectations.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:00 AM on May 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


BlueJae: "But the comments here basically calling the people of Joplin stupid for having the audacity to live in the sort of homes that are the only sort commonly affordable in that community..."

Maybe I'm reading them differently, but I didn't read any comments of that sort here (okay, there was one general IA/MO joke, but please...). There were mefites calling the commenters on the original editorial stupid for saying, "I don't wanna pay for this; why don't you pay for it (and clean it), Worry Lady?"
posted by queensissy at 11:06 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


We also need to build stronger shelters to protect us from these frequent and unpredictable shrieking call-outs of "victim blaming."
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:25 AM on May 25, 2011


If the people of Joplin are stupid for living in tornado-prone region in not-so-safe houses that were built by a previous generation then so are the people of California, who keep building cities on faults

I don't know about stupid, but there's little doubt that many, many people in California are flirting with disaster to be living where they're living, either from wildfire or earthquake. That's pretty well argued in this book.
posted by blucevalo at 11:32 AM on May 25, 2011


Where my home sits, higher up in a relatively hilly area, we are very unlikely to suffer a direct hit from a tornado; that being said, the strong winds could certainly produce extensive damage.

On what do you base this probability assessment?

Education is key

Starting with education about how sitting higher up in a relatively hilly area does not make it more unlikely that you will suffer a direct hit from a tornado.
posted by spock at 11:42 AM on May 25, 2011


Starting with education about how sitting higher up in a relatively hilly area does not make it more unlikely that you will suffer a direct hit from a tornado.

Fair enough, my entirely unscientific observation. Living in the same place for so long, you certainly see patterns of where tornados tend to touch down in this 20 mile area - more often around the lakes here.

The reason I built a tornado safe room in the basement is because I know a tornado could absolutely hit my house, regardless of where it is located. My phrasing was overstated.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:58 AM on May 25, 2011


There are a lot of myths surrounding tornadoes. Almost every area has certain "legends" about how this area or that is "protected" from tornadoes. One of my personal favorites was allegedly based upon Native American lore that Burnett's Mound, a hill southwest of town, would protect Topeka from a tornado coming from that direction. In 1966 a powerful tornado traveled directly over Burnett's Mound, shattering that myth along a 22 mile path that cut through the city.

Don't confuse something that "has never happened" with something that "cannot happen".
posted by spock at 12:10 PM on May 25, 2011


Given the option, a lot of people will not pay for safe houses, and landlords will always give you the minimum. That's where building code comes in. Fire escapes aren't free, but apartment buildings have them because they are required.

People in tornado areas could be required to have safe rooms. Every trailer park could be required to offer a shelter big enough for all the residents (maybe something that could double as a function hall) or offer an external safe room for each trailer (maybe doubling as an entryway between the outside world and the trailer).
posted by pracowity at 12:44 PM on May 25, 2011


The single biggest factor for survival is to be below ground level. Especially for a tornado in a populated area, the devastating effect of any tornado is the debris that is picked up and thrown around making the tornado into a gigantic weed-wacker. You are no longer simply talking about 200 mph winds (for example) but glass, sheet metal, roofing materials, lumber and bricks traveling horizontally at 200mph. --Spock

Case in point.
posted by mecran01 at 1:31 PM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]



I had to laugh (notreally) about the 20 minute warning sirens/alarms.
Picture this: You live in tornado alley and during the season the alarms go off once or twice weekly (at least). Do you believe people drop everything and head for their safe place each time the alarm sounds? Newcomers do. Newcomers do.
The first time. After that the sight of a funnel cloud heading towards you becomes the defacto siren. No help if you are indoors or it is dark/night.
Me speaks from personal experience.
posted by notreally at 1:34 PM on May 25, 2011


So what's the solution then? "Less false warnings" is easier said than done.
posted by smackfu at 1:49 PM on May 25, 2011


But the comments here basically calling the people of Joplin stupid for having the audacity to live in the sort of homes that are the only sort commonly affordable in that community are not helpful.

Thanks, BlueJae. I haven't actually seen many comments on MeFi that have bothered me too much, but elsewhere on the web I've been reading things that just make my blood boil (for example, I have half a mind to go smack the blogger at Firedoglake who implied that Joplin deserved it for voting the way they tend to). It's worth noting that Joplin is not a super well-to-do town and people's options are somewhat limited. I am originally from Joplin, and as much as people in that town drive me nuts, they sure as hell do not deserve this.
posted by naoko at 1:50 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


So what's the solution then?

Maybe we have to accept that nature isn't always going to deal us a hand that humans can win?

I don't mean to be flippant about what has happened to the people of Joplin. Or what happened in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. Or those affected by Hurricane Katrina (and Ike, and Rita, and Andrew, and on and on).

I just am not sure that there is always going to be a solution. We can prepare for 99% of all possibility and a storm can still come along that no one projected or imagined.
posted by pineapple at 2:05 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


So what's the solution then? "Less false warnings" is easier said than done.

Improvements have been made in this regard. The SPC and NWS offices are now using polygon "storm-based warnings" rather than simply county warnings (which would result in sirens blowing in a wider-than-necessary area). Example here.

You can also purchase weather radios with S.A.M.E. technology that allow you to program them to "go off" only for the specific areas and threats that you specify. These can save lives for after-bedtime tornadoes, without waking you up for lesser threats.
posted by spock at 2:09 PM on May 25, 2011


You live in tornado alley and during the season the alarms go off once or twice weekly (at least).

No, they don't.

The National Weather Service requires a weekly test of the radio alert system. Local communities set their own standards for regular tests of the outdoor alert sirens. Here in Springfield, they test the outdoor sirens once a month.

And even though this has been an especially active tornado season, the vast majority of us here in the middle of the country have not heard a single warning siren this year in our towns.

There's no excuse for complacency. People who ignore the sirens and alerts are risking their lives due to laziness.
posted by General Tonic at 2:18 PM on May 25, 2011


Home Depot is one of the scariest places I'd want to be in the event of a natural disaster. Next time you are there, just look up. You will see stacks of heavy tools, equipment and building materials stacked precariously high, palette upon palette, on a skeletal metal shelving system. Imagine somebody knocking into that shelf hard enough for something to fall off on your head. Now imagine an earthquake, or, as in this case, a tornado. Same goes for Costco.

However, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, Home Depot (and Costco) are not bad places to be.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:39 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Unless it's a zombie virus spread by a tornado storm. In which case, you're just fucked.
posted by hippybear at 2:52 PM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


One downside of outdoor underground shelters, if they're not maintained, is that a) kids fall/climb into them, making them liability risks, and b) they become snake and scorpion hotels. Also, they develop leaks and all the fun mold that comes with it.

Not an excuse, but it's not a simple thing to install and maintain underground shelter --and how many actual basements develop leaks and other issues?

Even with the week we've had, the average person's risk of dying by tornado is incredibly low, and unless the government takes an interest, nothing will be done about requiring safe spaces.

You could maybe get the govt to decide that more tornado-safe buildings, in general, are a good idea because cleanup is expensive, but given the power and stinginess of corporations, I seriously doubt they'd be able to get it through Congress. If Home Depot stores had to be more tornado-resistant, it would cost Home Depot money, and Home Depot's lobbyists would get to work.
posted by emjaybee at 2:53 PM on May 25, 2011


I'd imagine digging up some public park areas, and building some monolithic dome structures under parts of the ground. The resulting hobbit like hill houses could provide shelter during tornadoes, and also provide funding to revitalize public park and community spaces that would help revitalize the now destroyed neighborhoods.
posted by mrzarquon at 4:48 PM on May 25, 2011


Also, the bonus of the space always being used for community use would also mean that the care and maintaining of the building would be shared between "tornado prep" and "soccer field post practice donut eating".
posted by mrzarquon at 4:51 PM on May 25, 2011


I also remember this. But of course, the comparison is ridiculous - this disaster was a tornado, and the bill was about volcanoes.
posted by qvantamon at 5:12 PM on May 25, 2011


But the comments here basically calling the people of Joplin stupid for having the audacity to live in the sort of homes that are the only sort commonly affordable in that community are not helpful.

Look, it's shameful that they were living in such shoddy homes. I'm sorry if you don't understand why, but think of humans living in chicken shacks with the same kind of shame. It shouldn't be happening. Now, this isn't the blame of the typically poor owner of such crap dwellings, except that it was their demand for cheap housing that called the wolves like a Siren's song.

The developers that put together these flim-flam houses in areas where they are likely to be destroyed and likely to take a few people with them—they should be held liable. Same with the assholes building cul-du-sacs in flood plains. It is unconscionable.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:40 AM on May 26, 2011


We used to have public nuclear bomb shelters everywhere. You still see the signs around occasionally. Why should the government protect us from nasty commie nukes but not tornadoes?
posted by QIbHom at 5:43 AM on May 26, 2011


The developers that put together these flim-flam houses in areas where they are likely to be destroyed and likely to take a few people with them—they should be held liable.

I understand your frustration, but this wasn't an issue of building a better home. Virtually nothing that was hit survived this F5 tornado. The nice homes were shredded just as easily as the lesser ones. So did the block concrete structures. Building codes should reflect risks in the region, but that doesn't mean every building should be underground to survive an F5.

Right now my community south of Joplin is dealing with that exact flood plain issue. A few years ago we had a major flood that hit several homes in a flood plain area. They repaired and rebuilt, and this season, it happened again a few weeks ago. And then again this week. Everyone wants an answer, but what is it? These homes were in a flood plain, no developer put them there. Some were built 50 years ago, some built 5 years ago.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:26 AM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Look, it's shameful that they were living in such shoddy homes. I'm sorry if you don't understand why, but think of humans living in chicken shacks with the same kind of shame. It shouldn't be happening.

Not to excuse the cost-cutting developers who've dominated the American house-building industry for several decades, but how many houses and apartment buildings in the United States could have survived Joplin's F5 tornado? 10%, maybe? Many houses that could make it through a more likely F3 tornado, Cat. 3 hurricane, or 7.5 earthquake would have lost against that monster.

I mean, you've seen all those apocalyptic photos of Joplin residential neighborhoods, and here's another devastating aerial view. In the center of its path, it wiped out almost everything (including many brick and concrete structures). Some of those buildings likely would have remained standing -- if severely damaged -- after a more typical tornado, and people might have survived in interior closets or bathrooms. It was Joplin's terrible luck to get such a rare tornado in a densely populated area.

I'm all for strict regulation of new residential and commercial buildings, especially in natural disaster-prone areas. Earthquake and hurricane-resistant houses seem to have gotten better in the past few decades, in a few geographical areas. But it doesn't do anyone any good to curse out a greedy developer who died in 1972, or to presume that Joplin's houses are somehow atypical for most of the United States.

Building more multi-purpose underground tornado shelters -- ideally several in each community -- is more realistic than retrofitting or rebuilding every house in the Midwest and South. Hopefully some enterprising young architects can come up with more affordable and attractive designs for them -- sounds like it'd be a good competition for a humanitarian foundation to sponsor right now.
posted by lisa g at 11:38 AM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


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