Helping At-Risk Populations Survive Tornadoes – OpEd


Better building preparation and public shelters will increase survival rates

By Matthew Biddle and David R. Legates

After tornadoes ripped through Tuscaloosa, AL and Joplin, MO, many called for greater efforts to enhance tornado forecast lead times and provide more time for people to take shelter and save lives. The video and pictures showing families grieving for lost loved ones are scenes that few will quickly forget.

Unfortunately, many people wait until they see a tornado approaching or hear the proverbial “freight train” sound before taking action. Humans often exhibit a normalcy bias where both the possibility of disaster and its potential effects are greatly underestimated. Warnings are often interpreted too optimistically, meaning an additional five minutes of advance warning will likely not be heeded.

The National Weather Service (NWS) 70% false alarm rate complicates matters. While tornado forecasting is an inexact science and the NWS does the best it can, too many false alarms make people think any alert is likely only another false alarm – and then disaster strikes, reducing response time despite improved forecasts and lead times.

NWS offices in Kansas and Missouri recently changed their warnings to include phrases like “mass devastation,” “unsurvivable,” and “catastrophic.” While intended to communicate approaching storm dangers more effectively, and persuade people to act immediately, these terms will likely have an opposite effect. After several storms labeled “catastrophic and capable of mass devastation” fail to produce destructive tornadoes, faith in forecasts will be lost.

It is assumed that how the population utilizes this information is a matter for emergency preparedness teams. Unfortunately, there is no real fix for irrational human behavior. People will make bad and sometimes deadly decisions for stupid reasons, even when they are educated enough to know better. No NWS terminology can “cut through” this clutter, unless a disaster arrives – and then it’s too late.

Just as important, additional lead time does little for at-risk populations that cannot evacuate and must seek “shelter-in-place.” The poor, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people without adequate shelter (travelers and those living in mobile homes or pre-fabricated housing) have disproportionate death rates in tornadoes. Especially for elderly or disabled people, the alternative to “sheltering-in-place” is being caught in a car while en route to a shelter when the storm hits. And economically disadvantaged families often live in substandard housing that lacks adequate shelter.

After Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992, housing codes were changed to make homes better able to withstand destructive hurricanes, thereby reducing insurance payouts, injuries and deaths. However, hurricanes offer substantial lead times, usually enabling anyone who wants to evacuate the chance to do so.

By contrast, tornadoes occur so suddenly that sheltering in homes is common. That is all the more reason why housing codes should be strengthened, especially for at-risk populations. While a direct hit from an EF-4 or EF-5 tornado may not be survivable, deaths from even these extreme storms would be reduced if homes on the periphery provided more security due to increased housing codes. Survivability would certainly be enhanced during less severe tornadoes, which represent the vast majority of twisters.

A rapid assessment team supported by the National Science Foundation found that inadequate connections between trusses, roofs and walls increase tornado damage. Many scientists who have studied this problem for years have come to the same conclusion.

However, even tougher building codes are not always followed or enforced. Unfortunately, more money and effort are spent on household amenities than on foundation anchor bolts and roof clips that can add less than $1000 to the final cost of the home – but greatly reduce injuries and deaths. In many cases, tight construction budgets and timetables often trump safety.

This assessment team also found that mobile home residents accounted for two-thirds of tornado victims, and more than half did not have access to a basement, storm cellar or “safe room.” This represents no change since the NWS Watch-Warning program began in the 1950s. Again, the poor and elderly, people with disabilities, and those without shelter are forced to “shelter-in-place” without adequate safety. What are they supposed to do when a warning is issued? Doing nothing is not an option.

It is imperative, therefore, that modern building codes be followed and enforced, and not undermined by competing interests. Trailer parks and apartment buildings must consider providing adequate and accessible shelters for their tenants.

Incredibly, in some areas, even in “Tornado Alley,” public shelters are closing because of manpower issues, inflexible Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, or underfunding for emergency management.

Certainly, homes can be built more cheaply and quickly on a slab – and for a generation now, we have built homes without basements, resulting in homes that have greatly decreased tornado survivability. However, basements can be built almost anywhere, notwithstanding claims that the water table is too high. More basements, storm cellars, and safe rooms simply must be built in more of “tornado country.”

These measures were featured in Alabama’s Tornado Recovery Action Council report. Unfortunately, the construction lobby opposes it, even as the insurance lobby is pushing for enhanced building codes. An independent consortium of engineers, architects, planners, emergency managers, meteorologists, geographers and public safety directors must get involved, as they did after Hurricane Andrew, to argue for safer building codes.

After a tornado strikes, the NWS assesses what could have been done better – but often refuses to take a strong stand, to avoid being critical of anyone, especially the NWS. Third-party oversight is needed (akin to the National Transportation Safety Board), to review actions by federal, state and local officials, and the general public – and suggest or mandate changes.

As Tuscaloosa and Joplin and other communities rebuild, now is the time to address improved construction standards and to have the discussion regarding at-risk populations. But during a housing downturn and with many pre-existing homes, we need to ask what can be done to help people who now live in inadequate housing and will likely continue to live there.

We must also promote stronger building codes to protect all citizens, especially these at-risk populations, from tornadoes and other high wind events. We can no longer assume bad things only happen to others. Everyone in or near “Tornado Alley” is at risk.

Dr. Matthew Biddle serves as a Community Service Officer at the University of Oklahoma Police Department and as an instructor at the University of Oklahoma. He has witnessed more than 100 tornadoes as a storm researcher and has studied tornadoes and tornado ecology for 25 years.

Dr. David R. Legates is a climatologist at the University of Delaware. He has studied weather and climate for more than 40 years and has worked with Dr. Biddle on tornado climatologies since 1988.

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