Deadly storms in Oklahoma, Texas demonstrate need for safety plan

Posted Friday, May. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Tornado tips • Designate a shelter area in your home or place of business, such as a basement, and go there during severe weather. • If you don’t have a basement or underground shelter, go to an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor and get under a sturdy piece of furniture. Lower-level interior bathrooms provide the best protection if no basement is available. Don’t seek shelter in bathrooms that have a window or an exterior wall. • Stay away from windows. • Always abandon mobile homes. • If you’re in a vehicle and no shelter is available, get out and find the lowest-lying area. Lie flat on your stomach and cover your head with your hands. • For a list of storm shelter manufacturers who meet the National Storm Shelter Association building standards, go to www.nssa.cc/ProducerRoster.php Source: www.knowwhat2do.com

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When a deadly tornado was bearing down on Rancho Brazos Estates near Granbury last week, Arlena Sherman’s options were limited.

She could have taken shelter in her single-wide mobile home or gone next door to her neighbor’s double-wide.

Neither was ideal. Mobile homes are never considered safe during a tornado, but Sherman went with the bigger-is-better approach.

She ran inside the neighbor’s mobile home and huddled in a bathroom as the EF4 tornado, packing 180-mph winds, pummeled her neighborhood.

The neighbor’s mobile home stayed intact, but her own was heavily damaged. If she had been forced to ride out the tornado there, Sherman isn’t certain she would have survived.

“I may have. I just don’t know,” she said. “Everything around us was totally annihilated.”

Six people died and dozens were injured in the May 15 tornado, one of 16 that danced across North Texas that day.

Of those who died, all were found in or near mobile homes, Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds said.

Five days later, the destruction wrought by the EF5 tornado that struck Moore, Okla., reinforced Sherman’s sense of helplessness.

“There is really no time to prepare,” she said. “The thing is, if you can’t get to a storm shelter, there’s not a whole lot you can do. Get to the center point of your house, throw mattresses over you kids — whatever you’ve got.”

If you can’t reach a shelter, experts say, the best bet is to ride out a storm at home.

Officials say almost all tornadoes — even the big ones — are survivable as long as you have an effective plan. It’s a bad idea to wait until the storm sirens sound to decide where to go.

Interior room is key

Larry Tanner, research associate with Texas Tech University’s Wind Science and Engineering Research Center in Lubbock, has studied the impact of tornadoes on structures and emphasized that people must be prepared for every scenario.

“You should have a plan at home, in town or in the car,” Tanner said.

If you’re at home when a storm strikes, get to an interior room on the lowest floor. The importance of that was demonstrated during the April 3, 2012, tornadoes that struck Arlington and Kennedale, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Huckaby said.

“We’ve had many incidents, including last year’s April 3 tornadoes, where people survived in an interior room while the exterior walls were no longer there,” Huckaby said.

Tanner said the smallest interior structure is usually best if you don’t have a shelter. He warns against using bathrooms that have exterior walls or windows.

If you’re on a freeway and have ample warning, Tanner said, you can drive away from the storm. But he warns against hiding under overpasses or in ditches. And if you’re driving on city streets, take shelter in the closest well-built structure you can find.

“If you’re in a car in the city, this is where a lot of deaths occur,” Tanner said.

In the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado that killed 42 and injured 1,800, many died in their cars after fleeing a shopping mall that was in the direct path of the twister.

A research paper in the February 1980 edition of Science magazine documented that 26 of the deaths and 30 of the most serious injuries occurred when people “went to their cars to drive out of the storm’s path.”

Safe room needed

In Moore, residents had been warned for days that dangerous storms were likely. In Shawnee, 40 miles east of Moore, a tornado killed two people Sunday. Even with ample warning, not everyone in Moore, where at least 24 died, could find shelter.

“I think they were relatively prepared in terms of ‘Yeah, it’s going to come,’” but obviously their plans of where they seek shelter might not have been very good,” Tanner said.

Specifically, Tanner pointed toward Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died.

“Plaza Towers was not a safe plan,” Tanner said. “We need to be building safe rooms instead of putting AstroTurf on ballfields. I don’t have anything against AstroTurf, but protecting children’s lives has got to come first.”

Tanner, who has studied the tornadoes that struck Moore in 1999 and 2003, will head back to Oklahoma next week to assess the damage and see how storm shelters fared.

After Monday’s tornado, Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis has said he will push for new ordinances requiring safe rooms in new construction.

Federal grants

Though some officials have said aboveground shelters cannot survive an EF5 tornado, Tanner said they can. Two years ago in Joplin, Mo., an EF5 tornado killed 161, but other people survived in safe rooms, Tanner said.

“The data has shown that is false,” said Tanner, who has a debris impact testing lab at Texas Tech. “One thing you have to get clear is the notion that the only safe place is underground is totally false.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency published the pamphlet P-320 to help property owners who want to build safe rooms and P-361 for community safe rooms. Many of the designs were developed at Texas Tech.

But Tanner hesitated at calls to mandate safe rooms in ordinances or building codes, since it could add $4,000 to $5,000 to home costs.

In Moore, with a presidential disaster declaration, residents might qualify for FEMA grants to help defray the costs of building shelters.

Before Monday’s tornado, a city rebate program to help build shelters had been shelved.

On the city website, a statement posted in February said the safe-room rebate program was put on hold because of a lack of funds and the lack of a recent disaster declaration.

“The Federal grant program which funds local initiatives such as ours is funded by monies set aside during Presidential major disaster declarations,” the statement said. “Oklahoma has had few of these declarations in the past couple of years, so there is not a lot of grant money available.”

In Texas, FEMA has approved 37 safe-room programs at a cost of more than $54.6 million. FEMA provides 75 percent of the grant funding, and local entities must provide the rest. The safe rooms were funded through presidential disaster declarations for Hurricane Ike and two Texas wildfire declarations in 2011.

‘Going to go back’

In the Granbury area, Hood County Judge Darrell Cockerham said he does not favor government mandates to build safe rooms or shelters.

He does not oppose a tax credit or other incentive for homeowners to build or add one. But the Hood County tornado doesn’t have a presidential declaration, and neither did the twisters that struck Arlington and Kennedale last year.

Sherman, a mother of five, hopes to return to Rancho Brazos soon.

Someone has donated a new mobile home through her church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Granbury.

When the debris is cleared and residents are allowed back into Rancho Brazos, Sherman will try to block out the memories of that storm.

“Yes, we’re going to go back,” Sherman said. “I don’t know when. But it will be good. My children will be back home.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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