By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Mo (Reuters) - Some of the biggest commercial structures in the path of the May 22 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, fell flattest, raising concerns about their safety.
The tornado leveled a Home Depot and a Wal-Mart located at the same intersection of a Joplin commercial district, killing numerous people. An Academy Sports store at the intersection also was flattened.
"The big box stores performed very poorly," said Larry Tanner, a civil engineering research associate at Texas Tech University who has 13 years' experience examining storm damage to buildings.
Tanner is part of a 10-person team established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assess tornado damage and make recommendations. Tanner expects the team to recommend that reinforced rooms called safe rooms be put in large retail buildings.
The three large stores were built to sustain 90 mph winds, as code required, Tanner said. But he said such buildings are vulnerable to damage in tornadoes because they typically have large windows across the front and tall walls with long spans.
"They are not built with any idea of tornadoes and I don't necessarily think they have to be, but they should have safe rooms in them to protect customers and employees," Tanner said. A safe room is typically used for other purposes, such as storage, but has reinforced walls.
Bob Franke, a FEMA civil engineer who serves with Tanner on the damage assessment team, said safe rooms and stronger building construction will be probably be recommended in a lot of structures in addition to big box stores.
Home Depot plans to put a safe room in its new Joplin store, company spokesman Stephen Holmes said Friday.
"We felt it was appropriate given the events of the past at this store and the sentiment of the community," Holmes said.
The store had a designated area in the Joplin store where customers and employees went during the tornado and everyone there survived, Holmes said. The people who died had entered the store to seek shelter as the tornado hit and didn't make it to a safe area, he said. Nearly all of the perimeter walls of the store collapsed.
Several people died at Home Depot and at least two died at Wal-Mart, said Jasper County Coroner Rob Chappel. He said a report will be released soon that gives a breakdown of how many people died in various buildings in town.
Academy Sports plans to rebuild at the former location in Joplin, corporate spokesperson Elise Hasbrook said Friday. She said she wasn't sure if a safe room is planned. No one died in the tornado, though most of the outer walls of the building collapsed, she said.
Wal-Mart plans to rebuild its Joplin store but has not determined an exact location, corporate spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said Friday.
Lopez said Wal-Mart has designated areas in stores that are deemed structurally soundest and used for tornado protection. But he said no decision has been made on whether to include a safe room in the new store.
The tornado also destroyed other large buildings in Joplin, including some schools. The Joplin School District plans to work with FEMA in putting safe rooms in all new and existing schools, said Angie Besendorfer, an assistant superintendent.
(Writing and reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)