Joplin looks for ways to boost safety in tornadoes

JOPLIN, Mo. —More victims of last month's tornado in Joplin died in their homes than anywhere else, prompting discussions about how far city officials can go in improving the safety of residences without burdening homeowners with requirements that are too expensive.

The Joplin Globe was able to determine where 106 of the 153 people killed in the May 22 tornado were when they died. Fifty-seven of those 106, or 54 percent, died where they lived, including in houses, apartments and nursing homes. Thirty-four people, or 32 percent, were killed in nonresidential areas, including stores and churches. The others, about 14 percent, died in vehicles or outdoors, the Globe reported Friday.

Much of the damage to homes occurred because fasteners that hold houses to their foundations either failed or didn't exist, building code supervisor Steve Cope told Joplin City Council members last week.

The council has informally agreed to require safety measures such as hurricane straps on new construction and extra bolts in structures to tie walls to their foundations, Mayor Mike Woolston said. The straps would cost about $600 each.

"A lot of the time, a roof is set on top of the walls and nailed in, but the nails just keep it from moving around. They don't really anchor the two together," he said. "The strapping will help hold those roofs on, which in turn helps hold the walls up."

At a public meeting June 7, several council members said they were against requiring homeowners to have a basement or shelter. Woolston said many residents probably will add those features on their own.

"I don't know that we'll necessarily need to encourage storm shelters for a while, but we would probably encourage that simply because of the safety factor," he said.

In the chaos immediately after the tornado, no one kept records of exactly where in the homes people were when they died, said Keith Stammer, Jasper County emergency management director. But few of the homes in the area have basements because the water table is high, the ground is rocky, and in some cases contains old mining tunnels, he said.

Only 28 percent of new homes had full or partial basements in 2009 compared with 38 percent two decades ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Best place to be

"The best place (to be during a tornado) is underground in a concrete- and steel-reinforced hidey-hole," said Bill Davis, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Springfield.

Some part of the home should be reinforced with concrete and steel "if you want to protect yourself from that type of wind speed and that type of destruction," he said.

Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, which promotes safety standards for shelters, said it might be appropriate to require shelters in buildings such as apartment complexes and nursing homes. But he favors offering incentives to homeowners to build shelters, rather than requiring them.

"Any incentive is effective," he said. "The amount doesn't matter as much as the homeowner thinking it's a good idea and being motivated to take the first step."

Bill Gallus, a meteorology professor at Iowa State University who toured the destruction in Joplin, said many small changes can make homes safer in storms.

"If the houses were designed more strongly, it's almost like you could reduce the spread of total destruction to closer to the center (of a tornado)," he said.

Even those who make all the right preparations can't be sure of safety during a tornado, said Davis, the meteorologist. A tornado as strong as the one that hit Joplin will always be deadly, he said.

"This type of tornado, with over 200 mph winds in the center, there is not much you can do," he said. "It sounded like a lot of people were doing the right things, but people were still killed in those areas."