Authorities in Moore, Okla., have wrapped up the search for bodies and survivors in the mounds of rubble left behind by Monday's ferocious tornado, and started the huge task of cleaning up the debris. The tornado killed 24 people as it tore a 1.3-mile-wide path through town, tearing houses down to their foundations as it passed. Mayor Glen Lewis vowed Wednesday to propose an ordinance requiring every house built in town from now on to have a reinforced tornado shelter — which typically cost $4,000 apiece — to reduce the death toll the next time a monster twister hits.
More than 100 schools across the state — and many more in other parts of the Midwestern region known as Tornado Alley — have fortified safe rooms already. But the two Moore schools flattened by this week's tornado, which packed winds upwards of 200 miles per hour, did not. In one of the schools, Briarwood Elementary, everyone got out alive. In the other, Plaza Towers Elementary, seven children were killed as they sought shelter in above-ground classrooms.
Having shelters in place might have saved lives, but not necessarily, says Albert Ashwood, the director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. Teachers and administrators at both schools followed safety plans to the letter from the moment the warning of severe weather was sounded. "When you talk about any kind of safety measures... it's a mitigating measure, it's not an absolute," Ashwood said. "There's not a guarantee that everyone will be totally safe."
While the shelters wouldn't guarantee safety, studies have shown that spending a few thousand dollars on a safe room can indeed save lives, notes Andrew C. Revkin at The New York Times. Yet, even though areas vulnerable to tornadoes have seen their populations boom, Revkin says, most building codes still don't require anything to mitigate the danger.
Oklahoma and the federal government have been encouraging safer construction in tornado zones. The state is in the second year of a program offering a limited number of $2,000 rebates through a lottery to cut the cost of adding a safe room to a home. But tornado-safe construction is still not the norm. [New York Times]
Even if it's impossible to make everyone in a community completely safe from such a massive and powerful tornado, weather experts say it's absolutely feasible to reduce the danger. And providing hardened shelters is just one step. Schools built in danger zones also need to be designed with emergencies in mind, without as many large auditoriums, cafeterias, and other large rooms where a collapse could be catastrophic, school-safety consultant Chuck Hibbert says. "You don't have to be any kind of engineer to understand that the larger the expanse of the roof the greater the chance of collapse," he says.
Tornado expert Joshua Wurman tells CNN that communities also need to enforce basic, inexpensive good building practices, such as requiring roofs to be attached securely to walls that are anchored to foundations, in order to make buildings more resistant to high winds. And while residents of Moore were warned of danger 16 minutes before the tornado hit, many scientists thought communities miles away were more likely to get hit, and Wurman says that to reduce the toll from killer tornadoes, the forecasters will have to get better at spotting the danger ahead of time.
For people to be safe from tornadoes, several things must happen. Scientists need to better understand the details of how tornadoes form, what events precede tornado formation, and how to better distinguish between thunderstorms that will make tornadoes and the overwhelming majority that will not. Then, forecasters need to be able to integrate that knowledge with observations, mainly from the national network of government weather surveillance radars and computer simulations to detect tornado precursors.
Warnings need to be effectively communicated to those most at risk, using traditional methods such as sirens and weather radio and new media like Twitter. Finally, those who are warned need to heed these warnings and take immediate and effective precautions. [CNN]