Can Tornado Alley become safer? Yes, within limits
In the wind-swept prairie called Tornado Alley, the scene is eerily familiar: Homes smashed to splinters. Trees and telephone poles snapped like twigs. A town in ruins.
On Monday, it was Moore, Okla. Two years ago, it was Joplin, Mo. There’s a pattern to the aftermath of these deadly disasters: Cleanup. A steely determination. Vows to rebuild. And urgent questions about what can be done to shield tornado-prone communities from the worst ravages of the next monster storm that comes calling.
The ferocious tornado in Moore that killed 24 people and carved a nearly 17-mile path of destruction is bound to revive talk of beefed-up building codes, spur new construction of shelters and send architects and engineers back to the drawing board for ways to make Tornado Alley safer.
Some experts are urging more of the tools used to protect hurricane zones; others say there are limits, financial and practical, to what a community can do to protect itself from the kind of horrific super-twisters that leveled Moore and Joplin.
“You can design for 250 mph winds but you can’t design for it economically,” said Steve Cope, Joplin’s building and neighborhood improvement supervisor. “It’s got to be something that can withstand the impact of a car going 250 miles an hour into a wall and roof because that’s what happened here. ... To build a truly tornado-proof home, people wouldn’t be able to afford to live in it.”
After 161 people died in Joplin in an EF5 tornado in May 2011, the city strengthened its building codes. It now requires, for example, more mechanical fasteners at the roof and foundation to better keep intact the shell of the house, Cope said. “We did what we felt was economical and easily achievable and we know would make an impact,” he adds.
But Joplin stopped short of mandating safe rooms, largely for financial reasons. “We’re talking about an additional $3,000 to $4,000,” Cope said. “Many people thought that additional cost should be up to them to decide. We have folks who don’t want government to tell them they had to do it.”