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Photo: Mike HollingsworthIt has been a busy couple of weeks here in the Southern Plains. Since I have been in the US there have been several years where the number of tornado deaths recorded has been zero. Unfortunately that is not always the case, and in just the last few days the death toll is standing at thirty five.

We all are painfully aware that violent tornadoes (and they are ALL violent if they hit your house) kill people. Likely as not that will always be the case. We cannot prevent tornadoes any more than we can hold back the tide, or stop the Earth from spinning. Given that tornadoes are an entirely natural, and predictable phenomena, maybe we could be a little smarter about getting out of the way.

Could any of those thirty five unfortunate souls have been saved?

You bet your ass they could!

There are approximately one thousand eight hundred public schools in Oklahoma, serving upwards of six hundred and twenty five thousand students. Of those schools, approximately one hundred have adequate protection from tornadoes, either with underground shelters or correctly built safe rooms. This is Oklahoma, and public schools are only part of the equation. I doubt anyone knows, or whether anyone checks the provisions for storm safety in the very many religious and private schools in the state. I can hear the plaintive moans of the oppressed Christian minority, bleating about 1st Amendment rights, should anyone try to ascertain the position in this regard.

It is further estimated that twenty percent of Oklahoma homes have safe rooms or underground shelters, which is simply another way of saying that eighty percent do not. Of all the states, only Alabama actually mandates the inclusion of storm shelters in schools, so credit to Alabama for doing this one right thing.

One might think that such events as violent, life-taking storms are unusual, that Oklahoma was caught napping, not expecting such a terrible thing. It's not like it has happened before .... Oh, hang on ...

Not only has it happened before, it happens every year. Indeed, April, May, June, you can, in Oklahoma, almost set your watch by the frequency with which the sky, in all it's fury, falls down on the heads of its citizens. Oklahoma is famous for this, more, we are proud of our stoicism in the face of mother nature fully resplendent in her violence. Ask anyone ... we will rebuild, we get out our lawn chairs when the sirens sound, We scoff at the very thought of hailstones the size of a chicken, until they come through the roof of the house, or worse, the windshield of the truck; the one with wheels too big and suspension so high you need a stepladder to climb in.

So why, I hear folk from Blue States who give Oklahoma money cry, why do all y'all not use some form of prophylactic protection?

A very good question, the answer to which is ... freedom.

A combination of bravado, actual tough stoicism, and a State Legislature that really would prefer to put their faux Libertarianism before the needs of the citizens, well most of them. They are, after all, quite happy to spend their time granting tax breaks to folk who want to buy private jets ... no trouble regulating matters like that. Protecting children is rather lower on the list of priorities. So low, in fact, that our Department of Human Services has been, for decades, complicit in the institutional abuse of children.

Here is an example of the, I struggle for the correct word ... depravity of thought that goes through the minds of some of our leaders. Mike Gilles is a former President of the Oklahoma State Homebuilders Association. Sure, it's a trade body, but one which I imagine would be highly influential with the state government. After all, his members build the houses, so they must be the experts, right?

Well here is what he had to say about building codes:

Mike Gilles, a former president of the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association, said that he built safe rooms in all his custom homes, and that even many builders who build speculatively now make them standard.

But asked whether the government should require safe rooms in homes, he said, “Most homebuilders would be against that because we think the market ought to drive what people are putting in the houses, not the government.”

I find it hard to accept that Mr Gilles doesn't understand what drives the housing market, so all I am left to conclude is that either he is lying, or he doesn't care whether poorer people have safe refuges, or not.

He puts shelters or safe rooms in his custom built homes, presumably because the people buying those high-end houses are demanding them. Yet for the off-the-shelf, garden variety, stock housing, the people couldn't give a flying fuck whether they live or die in a storm.

Yeah, right. Mr Gilles doesn't include shelters because no one is telling him to. It's that simple. Most people buy homes that are already built, and they have little say in the matter. When they are wealthy, and they do have a say, the market demands shelters.

Presumably, following the 1999 F5 tornado that devastated Moore, OK, those members of that august organization learned from the mistakes of the past, and upped their game. They are the experts, and even when building speculatively, even then there ought really be some pressure to build better. As a craftsman, wouldn't your pride if nothing else, demand that?

The engineering investigation found that most houses failed because they were not fastened well enough to the foundation, and the roofs were insecurely attached. So, the wind blows in the garage door, the house pressurizes and the roof blows off (no hurricane ties). Then the walls fall down because they are fixed in such a way that the only thing holding them up was their own weight, and the roof ... which is now decorating the neighbors yard.

In a follow-up study, the same engineering team found that the building practises had not changed. Except in a few rare circumstances, the same nails were holding down the walls, and the same roofs were being built, sans ties. No improvements, and no mandate to make any. No 'fraidy holes or safe rooms (unless you are wealthy), and no one cares. Read the whole horror story here (pdf)

I do accept that in an EF5 tornado, few buildings will be left standing. Most are not that powerful, and the problem is that poorly built houses not only fall down much more readily than they should, but that the debris from them further endangers even the stronger structures. The Three Little Piggies survived the wolf, and his attempts to huff and puff and blow down their brick home. They are indeed fortunate that their home wasn't built in Oklahoma.

Let us move on, because before I finish I'd like to dispel a few myths.

Over the last week or so I have heard and read that it is hard to build basements in Oklahoma, because of the ground conditions. It is true, Oklahoma City sits on bedrock not so far below the surface. I find it remarkable that homes that cannot have basements because the ground is too hard, can have in-ground swimming pools with apparent ease. So you can dig an eight foot hole, but not a ten foot one? It's rubbish to suggest that shelters cannot be provided for this reason. It is equally nonsense to scare folk off shelters by the exaggerated costs I see quoted.

It does not, for example, cost $4000 to incorporate a safe room in a new build. Most new family homes include a walk-in closet. That room has four inch walls of wood and sheetrock. Giving the closet eight inch concrete walls and ceilings, at the build stage, would cost hundreds, not thousands of dollars. It is the cost of concrete and rebar, and a decent door. If your builder is scalping you for thousands, get another contractor! Lining the same room with steel, instead of concrete, would cost only the price of the steel and the services of a welder for a few hours. It isn't even difficult welding, a student could weld half inch steel plate. Cover the steel with insulation and sheetrock, and you would never know it was there.

Even if it did cost $4000 ... So what? On a $200 000 home that is 2%, amortized over thirty years. Treat it as security and protection for your family, and even your neighbors. It is a very small price to pay.

The same goes for schools. Most are built around long hallways. Because of the habit of grouping classroom doors in fours, there are up to eighty feet of windowless central space that again could be poured with reinforced concrete walls and ceilings at minimal cost as part of the overall budget. sliding steel doors at each end and most schools could accommodate five hundred kids per shelter, safe even in an F5. The current arrangement is that you go into that very same hallway, crouch with your hands on your head and pray that the tornado is weak, or your school is strong. Unfortunately, in Moore the school was weak and the tornado strong. Tragic, senseless and unforgivable.

On Friday night many folk were criticized for trying to outrun the danger in their cars. The inadvisability of this is very well detailed here. With his usual hyperbole (snigger), the Diarist accurately explains why a building, any building is normally the best option. Further, one of the worst possible places to be when hit by a tornado, is in a car. It's a sad fact that many people are caught out on the highways. Frequently they leave their vehicles (good) and try to take refuge under bridges and overpasses (very bad). The wind strength actually increases below such structures due to the venturi effect. They become death traps. Here is a novel idea ... Highways and bridges cost millions of dollars per mile to build. So if people are going to try to shelter under bridges, why not put shelters under bridges? Building them would be cheap. I know public shelters, if open all the time can become a refuge for all sorts of unsavoury activities, but we have the ability to change the messages on remote signs, so why can we not unlock the shelters only during tornado watches? How hard is it?

I listened to a radio discussion about this situation. The participants recognised that many people tried to flee, and some died in that attempt when the highways turned into parking lots, and they had nowhere to go. None of the panel realized, or explained that there is a very simple solution to behaviour like this. You simply make people feel safe in their own homes and workplaces. If you can shelter-in-place, you will have absolutely no desire to leave. But you will not be able to do this until it is mandated that buildings have shelters, because as the builders have made perfectly clear, they are not prepared to provide them on any kind of voluntary basis.

The first priority of any government is to protect the safety and security of the citizens. They have no higher duty. This is not Big Government®, or socialism, or even interference. This is their duty, the oath they took, the promise they made.

Government is very good at being on the ground helping after the event. It is time the Oklahoma Legislature turned up early for a change.


Originally posted to Every Part of You Belongs to You on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 08:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Oklahoma Roundup.

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