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Oklahoma Storms: What Is It Like Living in Tornado Alley?

In the map above, my mother's house is on Western just north of 119th. My Grandmother's house is just east of Eastern on 12th Street. The red line is the May 3, 1999 tornado. The blue line is the May 8, 2003 tornado and the green line is the May 20, 2013 tornado, which overlapped the path of the 1999 storm.
In the map above, my mother's house is on Western just north of 119th. My Grandmother's house is just east of Eastern on 12th Street. The red line is the May 3, 1999 tornado. The blue line is the May 8, 2003 tornado and the green line is the May 20, 2013 tornado, which overlapped the path of the 1999 storm.
Courtesy KFOR

This summer will mark my 10-year anniversary of moving to Houston. I don't miss Oklahoma often, but the last two days have been particularly hard. I've been glued to the Internet and NPR, absorbing the news with an emotion that can only be described as helplessness.

Moore, Oklahoma, the area hardest hit by the Monday's tornado, is my hometown. Before moving to Houston, I lived in Moore for 23 years. I was born there and graduated high school there. Almost all of my family lived within a one-mile radius. I remember, once or twice a school year for 12 years, having storm drills where we huddled against an inner classroom wall with hardbound books opened over our heads. I remember the tornado sirens being tested at noon every Saturday. During the course of my life my family and friends have been very lucky to have never had a direct hit from a tornado, but there have been some close calls. Monday was probably the closest.

As I am writing this, the death toll of Monday's storms is at 24 and is expected to rise. That includes 9 children.

I've seen and heard so many comments, both earnest and sarcastic, from newscasters, online commenters and even from my own friends on how such a thing could happen in an area so well-known for its storms. I've decided to write an explainer after the jump for those who didn't grow up in Tornado Alley to help address some of those questions. Feel free to leave your own questions in the comments.

"Why Aren't All Public Buildings Required To Have Basements? Why Don't Homes Have Storm Shelters?"

For a long time it was believed that huddling in an interior room without windows, or against an interior wall, was enough to protect you from a tornado. If you didn't have a basement or safe room, a closet or bathtub with a mattress piled over you was the best option. All that changed on May 3, 1999. The tornado outbreak that struck Oklahoma that afternoon -- also striking Moore -- contained winds possibly higher than 318 mph, the strongest ever recorded on earth. I say "possibly" because the measuring equipment promptly broke. That tornado also led, in part, to the creation of the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which is based on damage caused by winds. Both the tornado in 1999 and Monday's tornados were level 5, the highest rating on the scale.

In the days and weeks following the 1999 tornado, prices for building equipment and supplies skyrocketed. The state passed the Emergency Price Stabilization Act to stop that from happening, but what it didn't prevent was the influx of hundreds of companies selling above ground tornado shelter/safe room construction in houses. Steel-enforced safe rooms can greatly increase the survival rate, but they also cost a lot of money, starting at $4,000.

For public buildings such as offices and schools, building a basement on an already-standing building isn't feasible. And it would be extremely costly for apartment complexes and offices to build a shelter, either underground or above ground, for their entire capacity.

It's hard to say why individual homes don't have basements. In some places, the hard wet clay is difficult to build in. And the water table in Oklahoma is pretty close to the surface. Cellars can be leaky, moldy and can flood easily. In the north, codes often require builders to build foundation below the frost line. If you're already digging that deep, why not add a basement? But the ground rarely freezes in Oklahoma so it does't have the same requirements. Another answer is that they just fell out of fashion. My father's house, which was built in the 1950s, has one. I spent one long afternoon inside not long after the 1999 storm. My mother's house, which was built in the 1980s, does not. Most home builders don't even offer them any more. But to understand why you have to understand a bit of the psyche of those who live in Tornado Alley. More on that in a minute. in the meantime, here's an article that asks "Why aren't there more storm cellars in Oklahoma?"

One of the many soldiers who responded to Moore after the tornado passed.
One of the many soldiers who responded to Moore after the tornado passed.
Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB via Compfight cc

"Why Are Homes Made Out Of Wood Instead of Concrete?"

For one, building with concrete is incredibly cost-prohibitive. EF 4 and EF 5 tornados are incredibly rare and, at that point, there really isn't any construction material that can withstand winds of 250mph or more. Here is a good article on the difficulties of building a tornado-proof home, but really, there is no such thing as a "tornado-proof" home.

"I'd Much Rather Deal With Hurricanes/Earthquakes/(Insert Natural Disaster of Choice) Than Tornados"

Literally everyone I've talked to since Monday who is not an Okie has told me how terrified they are of tornados.This is probably true for pretty much everyone. At least with hurricanes, typhoons and tsunamis, you get at least some warning. But no place is paradise. After living in both Houston and Oklahoma (and being married to someone who grew up in Florida) I'm not so afraid of any kind of weather, but I think it's more a matter of being prepared. And nothing prepares you for something like tornado or mudslide or wildfire or hurricane season than living through a few years of it. But there is no season for earthquakes.

 

Here's some Mom-O-Vision of the damage between my Mom and Grandma's house. My mom took it while driving to take my grandmother to lunch. On the way they found out that the cemetery where my grandfather is buried was completely destroyed.

"Honest To God Serious Question That Is In No Way Intended To Be Mean or Snarky: Why do people consciously choose to live in places that have seasonal natural disasters?" (Asked By A Person Who Lives In California)

This is a classist way of thinking that assumes that anyone who wants to can relocate to any part of the world at any time can. But there are many reasons why someone would choose to live in a place like Tornado Alley. They include: loves ones, roots, job, cost of living, opportunities. California, it should be noted, has earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires and mud slides. And those are all a lot less predictable than tornados.

"You Just Know That People Won't Move Away From Tornado Prone Areas But Proclaim They Will Rebuild."

Let's talk about the mentality of someone who has spent most of their life in Tornado Alley. The Fujita scale makes a handy comparison for Houstonians -- an EF5 is on the same level of severity and wind damage as a Category 5 hurricane. They're considered "once in a lifetime" storms.

The 1999 tornado challenged a lot of people's beliefs about such storms. Many people thought a tornado couldn't sustain itself in an area with so many buildings -- that it needed wide-open space to maintain its energy. That tornado and the one on Monday were both uncommonly wide -- Monday's funnel was more than two miles wide at one point.

One thing to understand about tornados is that they are extremely changeable. Forecasters can only predict that conditions are right for them, not that they will form with any certainty. And they don't follow a straight path -- they zig and zag, lift up and touch down again. The gym of my junior high, across the street from my Mom's neighborhood, was completely leveled on Monday. The rest of the school was totally unscathed. A friend asked me, "Why were the schools even open?" But people can't stay home from school and work every time severe weather is predicted. People in the path of Monday's tornado only got 10 minutes of warning to take cover.

There is also such a thing as siren fatigue. Sirens mean a tornado has formed and has been spotted in the area. But a siren can't tell you which neighborhood that tornado will hit, if it even touches down. Can you imagine, day after day of tornado season, huddling in a closet only to have no storm form at all? Eventually people being to ignore the warning, as evidenced by the dozens of bystander videos of Monday's storms that have popped up online the past few days. Add to that a sort of trademark Okie stoicism brought on by years of trial and tribulation, from the Dust Bowl to the Murrah Building Bombing.

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 few people thought another massive hurricane could hit the same spot so soon. But Rita almost did. I read a statistic somewhere that a tornado only hits the same square mile once every 700 years. It just so happens that those 700 years came to Moore only 14 years apart. The bottom line is that storms of this magnitude truly are very rare.


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