Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Oklahoma Tornado Prompts Discussions on Surviving, Rebuilding

The Moore, Okla., tornado raised many public policy concerns, including those involving schools and storm shelters.

Moore tornado damage
The Moore area was struck by an EF5 tornado on May 20, 2013. Photo courtesy of Andrea Booher/FEMA

Editor’s Note: While the authors were preparing this article, tornadoes occurred on May 31 in El Reno, Okla. This occurrence has raised a different set of interrelated issues, including behavioral, warning and communications questions. It warrants a separate analysis and demonstrates the increased need for comprehensive, sustained discussion about sheltering issues during tornadoes and wind events.

When Scott Lewis heard that a tornado was headed toward his neighborhood in Moore, Okla., on May 20, he rushed to a nearby elementary school and grabbed his 9-year-old son, Zack. They dashed the two blocks home, dropped into the blackness of their tiny safe room under the garage floor, and slammed the rusty door shut. 

They had just one minute to spare before the massive tornado obliterated their home, like the rest of their neighborhood, down to the slab.

Scott and Zack Lewis were safe. But back at Plaza Towers Elementary School, many were not as lucky. Even though teachers took students to the safest places and shielded them with their own bodies, there was simply no tornado-safe place in the school. Seven of the second- and third-graders were among the 24 who died when the powerful tornado roared through Moore that day.

The deaths and destruction prompted a debate about how and where to rebuild, and why there weren’t safe rooms in some of the schools.

Many people were riveted to the TV news accounts of a powerful tornado that affected five counties that day, but centered on Moore during the afternoon. Initially viewers were awed by the power of the tornado that resulted in massive damage concentrated on Moore, a small city of about 55,000 people. The tornadic winds, determined to be at the highest level of the tornado scale, EF5, caused a path of destruction 1.3 miles wide and 17 miles long. What made this tornado especially compelling were the images of the search for elementary schoolchildren in two school buildings that didn’t have storm shelters and for residents of homes without safe rooms.  

Most areas in the storm’s central path suffered catastrophic damage. Entire subdivisions were obliterated, and houses were flattened in a large swath of the city. Among the hardest-hit structures were two public schools: Briarwood Elementary School and Plaza Towers Elementary School. Seven died among the 75 children and staff members at Plaza Towers. As of early June, estimates of the tornado’s impact were: 24 deaths; 377 major injuries; 4,000 buildings destroyed; and a damage estimate of $2 billion to $5 billion.

Once National Weather Service meteorologists determined that the tornado was heading toward a populated area, they issued a “tornado emergency,” a rarely used distinction to make it clear that there is an exceptionally dangerous situation pending. These tornadoes have people nationwide talking about the importance of safe rooms.

The tornado hit what is arguably the safe room capital of the world, where thousands have been built in response to five serious tornadoes in the past 15 years. Moore probably has more safe rooms per capita than anywhere else in Tornado Alley. In Moore, there were 3,170 shelters registered, according to Gayland Kitch, emergency management director of Moore.

Experts are certain that deaths and injuries were avoided when many people ducked into their safe rooms to ride out the storm in safety.

Safe rooms are specially engineered, tested and certified. They are armored and anchored to protect from winds up to 250 mph and from a debris spear traveling at 100 mph. They can be built inside or outside, above or below ground, in new or existing buildings. They can be built in a small home closet or pantry, or constructed large enough to hold the students of an entire school.

In many instances in Tornado Alley, safe rooms offer the best option for protection, and sometimes they are the only real option (in a mobile home park, for example). They can serve multiple purposes and greatly increase the odds of survival. Done right, with careful design and installation, they can provide “near absolute protection.”

Following the killer 1999 tornado that affected Moore, FEMA and Oklahoma launched an incentive program to encourage the construction of safe rooms, with FEMA paying 75 percent of the costs for qualified applicants. With $57 million, the state and FEMA have supported construction of 11,386 private safe rooms and another 382 in public buildings. Oklahomans’ quest for safe rooms has been capped only by the available funding.

Moore was ground zero for major tornadoes in 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2010, neighbors sheltered others, allowing some shelters to serve several families. For example, in 2003, one small safe room held a dozen people, three dogs and two cats.

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