Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Moore Tornado Reminds Us That "Sheltering" Is A Community-Level Concern

As the news of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado flooded in on Monday, the images were terrifying.  Over and over, Meteorologists kept saying- "it would be very hard to survive this storm above ground".  And then we heard that basements and safe rooms are not common in Moore.  Safe rooms being structures that are reinforced to withstand 200+ MPH winds.

So how can that be?  How can a town situated in an area of the country ripe with tornado activity be without basements and safe rooms?

Well- as with most public health challenges, the answers are complex:

Environmental:  The soil in the state is comprised mostly of clay.  The bedrock is mostly limestone.  Both absorb water and become unreliable foundations for a basement.

Urban Sprawl:  As The Atlantic points out, "One reason tornadoes prove so deadly now is that, given the spread of the suburbs, their funnels simply stand a better chance of touching down where people are".  Therefore, instead of striking farmland, these tornadoes are striking homes and schools and shopping centers- many without sufficient sheltering options.

Cost: Various estimates have been given over the past two days, but NBC News reports that individual home safe rooms can cost $8,000-$10,000 to construct.  There is a lottery to receive state assistance for these costs.  The most recent lottery selected 500 homeowners...out of 16,000 applications.  The city of Moore recently applied for $2 Million in federal aid to help build safe rooms in an additional 800 homes.  City officials report that the program was delayed because FEMA standards were a "constantly changing target".

There are additional cost challenges at the community-level.  NBC News reported that it would cost $1.4 Million to construct safe rooms in each school.

Access:  The City of Moore has no community (or "public") tornado shelters.  On their website, they attribute this to two reasons:  (1) People take less risk by sheltering in place and (2) There is no public building in Moore that is suitable for a shelter.

With hindsight being 20/20, it is heartbreaking  to read the following statement on their site:

"Statistically, there is only about a 1-2% chance of a tornado - of any size - striking Moore on any particular day during the spring. But of all tornadoes that do strike us (again, not very many historically), there's only a less than 1% chance of it being as strong and violent as what we experienced on May 3rd [1999]".  

Interestingly, "May 3rd" (as it is often abbreviated), shined a light on the need to shift from individual (family) shelters only to community-level ones.  Shortly after that storm, FEMA released design and construction guidance for community safe rooms.  Many communities, such as nearby Tushka, OK, have constructed such rooms very successfully.

In public health, we assess health needs and change the conversation from individual-level to community-level solutions.  We need that frame of mind to improve emergency preparedness planning for tornadoes.  As Megan Garber writes for The Atlantic:

"The old, Wizard of Oz-style model of sheltering -- every farm with its cellar -- is slowly giving way, in the age of suburban sprawl, to large shelters meant to house large groups of people".    

"Sheltering, in other words, is moving from an individual concern to a collective one". 

Tell Me What You Think:

  • What are some solutions to the challenges (environmental, cost, access) listed above?
  • What is your reaction to the shift from individual to community-level shelters?

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