Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tornadoes, Trusting God, and Planning Ahead

I was shocked when I learned that quite a few American homeowners don't have a basement under their house. That was decades back, and there are quite a few reasons for that situation. On the other hand, it means that quite a few folks are - in my opinion - taking unreasonable risks.

Storm Shelters, Law, and Oklahoma

"Why so few storm shelters in Tornado Alley hotspot?"
Tara McKelvey, BBC News Magazine (May 21, 2013)

"Oklahomans had only limited access to safe rooms and shelters during the storm. People who live in Tornado Alley explain why.

"Representative Pat Ownbey was hunkered down in a basement of the Oklahoma House of Representatives as the tornado arrived in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore.

"Ownbey had been through a milder episode before. A tornado hit part of his district in 2009, destroying a mobile-home park.

"It turned the neighbourhood into 'a landfill', he says.

"Afterwards Ownbey tried to get a bill passed that would require mobile-home parks to offer emergency plans to residents.

"He also looked into building a shelter for his house - but never got around to it.

" 'It's risk versus cost,' says Ownbey. 'You think it's not going to happen again.'..."
What Representative Ownbey did about trailer parks makes sense, I think. More to the point, it's consistent with what the Catholic Church says about social justice: letting "associations or individuals ... obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928-1942)

His impulse to build a special-purpose tornado shelter is reasonable, and so is deciding not to do so: in my opinion. Taking reasonable steps to preserve our own life is 'in the rules.' Principles for legitimate defense seem to fit emergency planning, too. 'Trusting God' is a good idea: so is using our brains. (Catechism, 301, 304, 2086, 2263-2264, for starters)

On a more personal note, I've never lived in a house or apartment with a special-purpose tornado shelter. But I've never lived in a place where I didn't have a spot to go in threatening weather.

BBC News has a picture that includes specs for a practical tornado shelter: in case you have the resources to build one, and see a need:

(from BBC News Magazine, used w/o permission)

Reasonably Confident

After about three decades in our house, we finally had central air conditioning installed. (Through One Dad's Eye (May 17, 2013))

We could have used the financial resources to get a tornado shelter: but we didn't. It's not that I 'have faith' that God won't let anything bad happen to us. So far two of our six children have died, we nearly lost my wife in the last incident, and we've experienced various other unpleasantness.

I didn't build a tornado shelter because we already have one: sort of. We live in a farmhouse that's been added on to over the last century. A room in the basement has standing-room-only for at least six people - the entire household.

When we're there, we have about 18 inches of a field stone/concrete foundation on three sides: with at least fifty feet of packed dirt between us and the next house. Overhead there's about a foot of assorted flooring and structural trusses.

There's nothing but an interior wall on the fourth side: but debris and wind effects would have to go through a foot of flooring and trusses, a ground level interior wall, and an exterior wall first. I'm reasonably confident that we're safe from tornadoes there.

Death and History

Folks living near Ellington, Missouri spotted a tornado back in 1925. Several hours and about 219 miles (352 kilometers) later, it fizzled out near Petersburg, Indiana. Roughly 700 people died in that storm, a bit less than half the death toll in the Bangladeshi tornado of 1989. Nearly a thousand folks died there in 1969, although Bangladesh had another name them. (Wikipedia)

I could rant and rave about tornadoes getting worse: and that it's the fault of some political party, or killer tomatoes, or whatever: but I won't.

I lived in the 'good old days,' when the communist menace was as popular as global warming is today. If we read about what was happening in East Pakistan, or the Belgian Congo: it was days or months after the fact. Today anyone who's interested can pick up news from Bangladesh or Zaire: often with a live feed from the current crisis.

I don't miss the 'good old days,' and that's almost another topic.

I strongly suspect that in the 'good old days,' the death toll in places like Bangladesh might not have made it into a permanent record: or been made at all. I've speculated that some ancient civilizations winked out of existence because something like the Midwest's recent storm system rolled over them.

Getting Ready for the Next Big One

The United States hasn't had another tornado like the big one in 1925: yet. My guess is that when we do, the death toll will be lower: certainly in terms of the fraction of folks who lose their lives.

We have fewer 19th century farmhouses now, but we have much better weather forecasts: along with multiply-redundant systems for letting folks know that it's time to duck.

(from Google Maps,, used w/o permission)
Several hours after the worst storms, the weather system that included them was still going strong. (10:07 p.m. Central Time, May 20, 2013)

We've also had much more experience with disasters: and learned quite a bit. Bad things still happen, but folks generally organize themselves into search-and-rescue teams pretty well.

(from, used w/o permission)
"Workers look for victims under debris from a tornado that passed across south Oklahoma City...." (May 20, 2013)

(from AP, via, used w/o permission)
"A boy is pulled from beneath a collapsed wall at the Plaza Towers Elementary School following a tornado in Moore, Okla...." (May 20, 2013)

Rescuing people is the first priority: but we're supposed to take care of animals, too. (Catechism, 2418)

(from, used w/o permission)
"Alli Christian, left, returns Jessica Wilkinson's dog Bella to her after finding her among the wreckage of Wilkinson's home shortly after a tornado struck Norman, Okla. No one was in the home when the storm struck...." (May 20, 2013)

Getting back to basements and 'unreasonable risks:' I realize that basements are rare in some parts of this country because soil is thin or nearly rock-hard; or for other practical reasons. Making everyone build houses like the ones we've got in Minnesota would be silly in places like Louisiana or Arizona.

But I think folks living in 'no-basement' regions would be well-advised to work out ways for having a 'storm shelter' in or near their homes. It wouldn't have to be a little bunker that's only useful in emergencies.

Our 'storm shelter, for example, has been a lab, a sort of washroom, and also provides maintenance access to a water softener. The point is that a solidly-built interior room can be 'hardened,' and still be useful for something besides riding out a twister.

More upscale 'storm shelters' could be a media room, den, anything that doesn't need windows.

Folklore and Science

I don't think that something's true because folklore says so: but I don't think folklore is always wrong, either.

I grew up in the Red River Valley of the North, where some old-timers insisted that destructive hail storms tended to follow specific paths. Meteorologists, using data from the first half of the 20th century, said that paths like that don't exist. Maybe so: but thunderstorm sprites were 'known' to be hallucinations - until someone got video of them. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (February 20, 2009))

And that's another topic.

Related posts:

Excerpt from the news:
"Deadly tornado tracked path of 1999 Oklahoma twister"
Associated Press, via (May 20, 2013)

"Monday's powerful tornado in suburban Oklahoma City loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region in May 1999.

"The National Weather Service estimated that the storm that struck Moore, Okla., on Monday had wind speeds of up to 200 mph, and was at least a half-mile wide. The 1999 storm had winds clocked at 300 mph, according to the weather service website, and it destroyed or damaged more than 8,000 homes, killing at least two people.

"Kelsey Angle, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City, Mo., said it's unusual for two such powerful tornadoes to track roughly the same path. The 1999 twister was part of a two-day outbreak sweeping mostly across central Oklahoma -- similar to the past two days....

"...The biggest known tornado was nearly 2 1/2 miles wide at its peak width, which the weather service describes as near the maximum size for a tornado. It struck Hallam, Neb., in May 2004.

"The deadliest tornado, which struck March 18, 1925, killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana...."
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