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Why Is it Hard to Find Places to Ride Out a Tornado in Oklahoma?

You might be surprised to learn that in the area famously known as 'Tornado Alley', underground shelters and safe rooms are relatively rare. Several reasons, from physical to financial to cultural constraints, conspire to leave residents vulnerable.
May 22, 2013, 12pm PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Oklahoma has thousands of storm shelters. However, when a monster tornado touched down on Monday, "that wasn't enough," says Megan Garber. "The storm was deadly in part because there were so few places -- underground places -- for people to escape to," she explains. "As Weather Nation's Paul Douglas noted last night, fewer than one in 10 Oklahomans have access to the basements that stand the best chance of keeping them safe when a "monster" -- another appropriately awful euphemism -- strikes."

Garber details the environmental and financial challenges that have led to a dearth of storm cellars in Oklahoma. 

Writing in The New York Times, John Schwartz also points to the cultural and regulatory obstacles that contribute to the scarcity. Although cities like Moore acknowledge that underground cellars are the safest places to ride out a tornado, "no local ordinance or building code requires such shelters, either in houses, schools or businesses, and only about 10 percent of homes in Moore have them." When Schwartz asked Mike Gilles, a former president of the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association, "whether the government should require safe rooms in homes, [Gilles] said, 'Most homebuilders would be against that because we think the market ought to drive what people are putting in the houses, not the government.'”

In her article, Garber notes that community shelters are helping to fill the void left by the sparcity of private ones. "[W]hile community shelters still aren't the norm -- Moore, for example, has no official public shelter, on the logic that sheltering-in-place is often the most prudent strategy -- that shift makes sense. More public shelters will mean more options for people when tornadoes form, as they do, with little notice."

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Published on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 in The Atlantic
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