In Joplin, 87% of the Homes Did Not Have Basements

Associated Press photo via MSNBC

So says MSNBC. The photo of the woman survivor above in her damaged bathroom attests to the value of that advice in most tornadoes but not in the core of F-4 or F-5 tornadoes. The lack of basements there is a surprise to me and helps explain the huge death toll in that F-5 tornado.

The MSNBC article also states,

Unfavorable soil contributes to a lack of basements in much of the South, where just over 11 percent of new homes include full or partial basements, according to a 2009 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
By contrast, more than 77 percent of new houses in the Midwest and Northeast had basements, the survey found. In the West, 21 percent of new homes had basements.

Given the huge death toll this year in cities where basements are rare, it is, perhaps, time to rethink public sheltering.

Home completely swept away in 1957 Ruskin Heights F-5 Tornado, only commode (left) remains
of the bathroom. Photo from Time-Life.

The City of Andover, which suffered a horrible tornado twenty years ago, leads the way in tornado safety:

  • They sound their tornado sirens only in the areas threatened
  • They have two public shelters (see photo below)
I took the photo Saturday. The public shelter is attached to the west side of the Public Library which is available during library hours. There are two public shelters at the police department and city hall which are available 24/7.  
According to Bill Duggan of the City of Andover, personnel are sent to open the 24/7 shelters whenever there is a threatening storm within two counties of Andover. They were opened, for example, Tuesday, May 24, when a “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch was in effect.

The science of meteorology has provided excellent warnings of the 2011 tornado onslaught. But, we have to get the communications clear (i.e., sirens only going off where there is a genuine threat) and people need a place to go. In areas where soil conditions to not allow basements, public shelters and “safe rooms” need to get a serious look before the 2012 tornado season rolls around. 

Hat tip:  Dave Freeman

8 thoughts on “In Joplin, 87% of the Homes Did Not Have Basements

  1. I spent a couple days with Habitat for Humanity building a house in Greensburg a couple years ago. They were building houses with no basements, but each house had an attached, above ground, tornado shelter. These were being constructed by a company that specializes in such things and had pretty impressive claims about what they would withstand. Do you have any opinion/data on these types of structures with regard to the F-4+ tornados? Are these a good option for those that do not have a basement and live in areas not conducive to basements or underground shelters?

  2. Yes, if they are built to FEMA standards, safe rooms are a good investment.

  3. It's time to rethink public shelters even in areas where most homeowners DO have basements. What good does does my house's basement do me if the killer tornado strikes while I'm out shopping at the mall or visiting the grocery store? I suspect most commercial buildings aren't built with tornado safety as a top priority – but here in Tornado Alley, at least, they should be.

    As for those above-ground tornado shelters: this story says it all.

  4. "What good does does my house's basement do me if the killer tornado strikes while I'm out shopping at the mall or visiting the grocery store?"

    Why are you at the Mall during a tornado watch?

    There is only so much the warning system can do. If you have a basement and are in a tornado watch as thunderstorms are approaching I suggest staying home.

  5. Mike, tornado watches (unlike warnings) can last hours, and during storm season they often occur over several days' running. I work very long hours, and have limited opportunities to run necessary errands like grocery shopping. (Frankly, I spend more time away from my house than I do in it. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother to own one!) Expecting people to stay at home during tornado watches (as opposed to severe thunderstorm warnings or tornado warnings) simply isn't realistic.

  6. That is not exactly what I said, so let me clarify: Assuming you have a basement, I would make it a point to stay home during a tornado watch WHEN THUNDERSTORMS ARE APPROACHING (i.e., within an hour).

    Yes, tornado watches can last eight hours and I would never counsel staying home for the duration every time there is a watch. But, when thunderstorms are approaching, it is (at least for me) a different matter.

    Thanks for the comments.

  7. I agree with you on that! But the question you asked me was "Why are you at the Mall during a tornado watch?" One obvious answer is "When I went there, there were no thunderstorms in the vicinity." (The other obvious answer is "I pay no attention to tornado watches," which isn't true in my case but I know is true in the case of many other people. It's the same problem you're concerned with when it comes to over-enthusiastic use of sirens: people have learned to tune the watches out, because they usually don't result in a tornado forming where they are.)

    I live in Omaha, and when I look at our commercial buildings, I worry. It seems to me that many of them are just the sort of structures – big boxes with large-span roofs supported only on the edges – that you don't want to be sheltering from a tornado in. One notable exception is the Nebraska
    Furniture Mart; it's located on 72nd Street, right where the F4 tornado passed in 1975. They've built several dedicated tornado shelters in their store; I'd like to see more malls, theaters, sports arenas, etc. do the same, so people who for whatever reason are caught away from home during a bad storm have someplace reasonably safe to go.

    (By the way, I loved your book!)

  8. So glad you liked the book!

    With regard to watches, I have suggested to the people in Norman that smaller, shorter-duration watches are something that should be looked at. So far, they have not taken up that suggestion.