Joplin has made some small building code changes. A new house must have hardware, called hurricane straps, that secures the roof more tightly. Bolts securing the house to the foundation now have to be placed four feet apart, rather than six. Walls made of concrete or cement need steel reinforcement. Such simple, inexpensive changes should mean that a tornado has to be strong enough to lift up the whole house – not just the roof – before it can do structural damage.
There isn’t good data on how many communities in tornado-prone places require such protection built into new houses. But even in those regions, according to the Insurance Institute, the chances of a house being hit by a damaging tornado could be as low as 1 in 10,000.
Shelter from the Storm
One thing Joplin did not do after the May 2011 tornado is require people to add storm shelters or safe rooms. Well-built shelters protect people from debris – the main source of death and injuries from tornadoes. But shelters cost $2,500 to $10,000 to build.
Many in Joplin assumed the expense anyway, and the city has especially focused on fortifying community shelters and safe rooms in schools. One engineer estimated Joplin and the region are adding 750,000 square feet of public shelter space – about $120 million worth. That’s enough to harbor 100,000 people.
About half of the homes rebuilt within a year of the tornado included a shelter, according to one official’s estimate. Stammer himself did not have to rebuild but added a shelter anyway, because of how quickly the tornado formed. Stammer said he realized that had the tornado hit at a different point of the day, he would not have made it to his office emergency bunker, where he usually directs storm response.
FEMA has helped cover the cost of residential shelters in some states, but some question the practicality of broader government programs or requirements that would force people to install them.