OKLAHOMA – The people of central Oklahoma know all too well the destructive power of a tornado, but when a big one rolled toward the town of Moore again on Monday, residents had few basements and storm shelters to run to when the alarm sounded, officials said. Previous tornados have already claimed the lives of 24 people.
Two elementary schools that were hit by the EF-5 tornado – the most powerful category – did not have “safe rooms” where students could shelter from the storm, and no applications for safe rooms had been made, Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood told reporters.
Seven of the nine children who died in Monday’s tornado perished in the Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit.
And while the popularity of above- or below-ground shelters or reinforced “safe rooms” in private homes has grown since a deadly 1999 Oklahoma city area tornado, Oklahoma County has just 6,489 such shelters out of approximately 260,000 residential properties, according to the county’s chief deputy assessor, Larry Stein.
Moore, a suburb of 55,000 where most of the 24 deaths tallied so far occurred, was also hard hit by the 1999 tornado.
The reasons for the lack of below-ground shelter range from the financial to the cultural to the geographical. Basements, for example, a staple of homes in much of America, are rarely built in the region. But federal and state programs have aimed to reduce the shelter gap in recent years.
Shelters are “highly recommended” for storm-prone areas, according to Larry Tanner, research associate for the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University who studies how shelters behave in fierce storms. He believes public buildings should have shelters or safe rooms in areas prone to large storms.
“Schools should all be built with shelters,” said Tanner, adding, “I would prefer my taxpayer money being directed toward shelters rather than AstroTurf on ball fields.” Few homes in US south have basement
In the southern United States, 18.6 percent of occupied homes have at least partial basements, according to 2011 U.S. Census data. By comparison, 84.2 percent of occupied homes in the Northeast and 76.5 percent in the Midwest have full or partial basements.
In the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, 3.5 percent of occupied homes have at least a partial basement, according to the latest available Census data from 2004. Stein said basements are more common in homes built before the 1940s.
“People around here really don’t know how to build basements, to be honest,” said David Tinsley, assessor for Cleveland County, which includes Moore. He noted that the ground has a lot of clay, and can shift.
Basements are more common in northern U.S. states because of the depth of the frost line, which can affect the stability of a house, Tanner said. But in southern states, the frost line is shallow. “It’s cheaper and easier to just build a foundation than to build a basement,” he said.
Basements are also uncommon in Joplin, Missouri, which has wet, rocky soil. A 2011 tornado in Joplin killed 161 people.