Oklahoma tornadoes: Aboveground shelters stood up in face of EF5 Moore tornado

Researchers who toured Moore after the May 20 tornado said aboveground storm shelters held up well in the storm and can be a better choice than underground storm cellars.
BY BRYAN DEAN bdean@opubco.com Modified: May 31, 2013 at 10:06 pm •  Published: May 31, 2013
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Part of the terror of an EF5 tornado like the one that hit Moore on May 20 is the notion that nothing aboveground can survive a direct hit and the 200 mph winds that rip homes off foundations.

But that's not exactly true. Aboveground storm shelters held up exceptionally well in the tornado and could be a better choice than a traditional underground storm cellar, said Larry Tanner, a research associate at the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University.

Tanner was among a team of researchers from the institute that toured the damaged areas after the Moore tornado. They examined how different types of structures held up in the storm, with particular attention given to storm shelters.

The institute tests and approves shelters for manufacturers based on standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They use giant air cannons to fire debris at speeds simulating strong tornadoes.

Tanner said researchers found 16 aboveground safe rooms or storm shelters in the damage path or near the damage path of the storm. All survived.

“They all performed great,” Tanner said. “We continue to have great success stories both in Joplin and in Oklahoma City.”

In some cases, all that was left after the tornado passed were the shelters. Tanner said aboveground shelters have had a hard time catching on in Oklahoma, where people have been told for decades that the safest place during a tornado is underground.

Moore Emergency Manager Gayland Kitch said there are 3,170 storm shelters registered in Moore. The vast majority are below ground.

Kitch said hundreds of people have called since the storm to ask about rebate programs for putting in shelters — there aren't any right now.

“I'm going to take those calls faster than I can answer them,” Kitch said.

Tanner said underground shelters also did well in the Moore tornado. One had its door torn off by the storm and another nearly had the door torn off, which can be dangerous.

“In the 1999 storm, I documented a below-ground shelter where the door had blown off and all kinds of debris was in that shelter,” Tanner said.

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