Without basements, Joplin had scant refuge from tornado

Reuters News
Posted: May 31, 2011 5:09 PM
Without basements, Joplin had scant refuge from tornado

By Kevin Murphy

JOPLIN, Mo (Reuters) - Like a lot of other Joplin homeowners, Herndon Snider rode out the May 22 tornado in a bathtub. Other popular places to take cover from the vicious tornado were closets and center hallways.

Such is the price people pay for living in communities such as Joplin where basements are rare due to rocky, wet soil.

About 87 percent of homes in Joplin have no basements, according to the Jasper County assessor's office.

The vulnerability of residents to injury or death in tornadoes for lack of a basement has drawn attention to the need for more storm shelters for individuals or large groups of people.

"I'll bet there will be a lot of them built here," Snider said.

The EF-5 tornado has been rated the deadliest single twister in the United States since 1947. The official death toll was 139 as of Saturday.

Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles saw first-hand what a tornado can do. The twister destroyed his house, which has no basement. Nobody was home at the time.

"My wife told me we are never going to own a home without a basement or storm shelter," Randles said.

Digging basements in most of Joplin is impractical and cost-prohibitive because of a high water table and limestone just below the surface, said John Knapp, professor of geophysics at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

Unfavorable soil contributes to a lack of basements in much of the South, where just over 11 percent of new homes include full or partial basements, according to a 2009 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

By contrast, more than 77 percent of new houses in the Midwest and Northeast had basements, the survey found. In the West, 21 percent of new homes had basements.

The percentage of new homes with basements has dropped steadily in the last 20 years, probably due to cost, according to Crystal Harrington, executive officer of the Homebuilders Association of Southwest Missouri.

Nationally, 42 percent of new homes had basements in 1992, according to the Census survey, compared to 30 percent in 2009.

Knapp said northern U.S. residents can thank glaciers for their basements. Glaciers left a deep layer of topsoil in regions generally north of the Missouri River. In Kansas City, just 160 miles north of Joplin, more than 90 percent of homes have basements, according to county assessors.

Safety officials note basements do not guarantee safety in a tornado because the house can collapse and trap or injure occupants. But many people killed in the Joplin tornado were swept from their homes, which would be less likely if they were in a basement.

Mayor Mike Woolston said that "in an ideal world" shelters would be accessible quickly throughout residential areas, but he said they are hard to justify because major tornadoes are still a rare occurrence.

Randles said the 20-minute tornado warning most of Joplin received on May 22 was unusually long and six or seven minutes are more common, leaving little time to reach a shelter.

"You'd almost have to have one on every block," Randles said. "By the time you found your car keys and got going, the tornado would be there."

Keith Stammer, emergency management director for Joplin and Jasper County, agreed.

"An attempt to move to other locations would risk placing people in danger," Stammer said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has funding available to help pay for putting shelters in public buildings, such as schools and government structures, said spokeswoman Susie Stoner.

The alternative to community shelters is for individuals to put shelters in their homes. One such shelter is called a safe room, typically a concrete-reinforced master closet or laundry room, said Harrington.

Another alternative is a poured concrete, above-ground structure in the shape of a vault that is often put in a garage, she said. Those structures typically cost as little as $2,000 and were growing in popularity even before the recent tornado, she said.

"It's an absolutely viable product right now," Harrington said.

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)