Natural Disaster Mitigation: A Look at Our Infrastructure

By Jillian MacMath, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
June 25, 2013; 5:52 AM
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Carol Kawaykla pauses while looking for items in her tornado-ravaged home Thursday, May 23, 2013, in Moore, Okla. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

After the devastation that swept Oklahoma in late May, and years of devastating outbreaks in our nation's midsection, the question stands: Are homes and buildings in these areas doomed, or can they be built to withstand massive, destructive tornadoes?

"I think there are things that can be done... we really do need to make sure that new buildings adhere to the newest codes, what we've learned," according to Richard Little, visiting research scholar in Infrastructure and Disaster Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "And research does inform the code process on a fairly regular basis."

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Though costly, new homes can be built to be more durable than older structures, using reinforced concrete or reinforced block structures, Little said.

For older homes, however, that do not have the same structural integrity of newer, built-to-code houses, there are options.

Tornado shelters are designed to withstand the strength of mother nature's wrath, and can be built residentially and commercially.

While some residents in areas like tornado alley have these structures, more often than not, the few-thousand-dollar price tag is a deterrent.

In the wake of Moore, where an EF5 tornado blew almost directly over top of an elementary school, eight children were killed. In the community as a whole, 22 lost their lives. So, why wasn't the town hunkered down in a tornado shelter?

In some areas, such as Moore, the red clay soil is partially to blame. Few homes have basements for the same reason. The soil causes foundations to settle and allows the structures to leak.

But underground shelters are not the only option. Safe rooms can be built above ground and provide the same protection.

An 8- by 8-foot safe room costs between $6,600 to $8,700, according to FEMA, and is less expensive than building an entire home with the same durability.

"People might lose everything, except their lives, but, I guess from my standpoint, that's a reasonable trade off," Little said.

According to FEMA, local jurisdictions generally do not require safe rooms or shelters, though some communities offer incentives for owners who opt to build them.

Following the May 20, 2013, devastation in Moore, Mayor Glen Lewis is pushing an ordinance that would require safe room shelters to be built in all new homes.

Political decision could be the key to change in these areas, Little said.

"Most of these solutions to all of these problems are political, it's not science. And that's the tragedy. We're not looking for a polio vaccine, we're not looking for a cure or preventative for breast cancer that is, maybe, out there. We know what to do," Little said.

"And at the end of the day, people die, children die, people lose everything. Better buildings are the easiest thing we can do. We just have to decide we're going to do it."

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