Sunday, May 22, 2011 was like any other day — until it wasn’t. At 5:34 PM, a tornado formed southwest of Joplin, Missouri. It grew to an EF5 monster with winds in excess of 200 MPH as it chewed its way through the town of fifty thousand, killing 158.
Wasn’t the Joplin Tornado Just a Fluke?
Admittedly, the 2011 Joplin tornado was an oddity. Out of the 1,200 or so tornados in the U.S. each year, only a very small number will ever be that strong. But, according to weather.com, EF5 tornados have occurred in nineteen states since 1950.
Most occur in an area known as Tornado Alley, which includes parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Montana — nearly 30% of the entire country.
But tornados can occur in any state and at any time of the year.
Why Are Tornados So Dangerous?
Even small tornados can have wind speeds over 100 mph, and the largest (like the Joplin tornado) have wind speeds of 200 mph or more. The highest tornado wind speed ever recorded by radar was 304 mph.
High winds from tornados cause two kinds of damage:
- Structural – roofs torn off, walls knocked down, trees toppled, etc.
- Impact – loose objects and debris are picked up and hurled by the winds
Most tornado injuries and deaths are caused by flying debris. There are only two sure ways to protect yourself from flying debris:
- Get into an approved above-ground storm shelter.
- Hide underground in a basement, cellar or storm shelter
Storm Shelters Are Like Car Insurance
You buy car insurance to protect yourself in the event of an accident. In the same way, a storm shelter is your insurance policy in the event of a tornado. Hopefully you’ll never need it. But, when the unthinkable happens, nothing else will protect you as well.
How Safe Are Above-Ground Storm Shelters?
Below-ground storm shelters rely on the earth itself for protection from high wind and debris. Above-ground storm shelters have to be strong enough to withstand the worst that a tornado can deliver.
According to the University of Missouri Extension publication Storm Shelters and Safe Rooms, all of Missouri is in Wind Zone IV, meaning wind gusts in severe storms can reach 250 mph.
The publication above highlights three major factors to consider in selecting a shelter:
- Durability — Are the walls, roof, and door strong enough to withstand 250 mph winds and wind-borne flying debris? Is it well-anchored to prevent overturning? Does the door fasten securely, probably with deadbolts?
- Proximity — Can your family get to the shelter quickly, day or night?
- Accessibility — Do you need handicap access? Does the door open inward or outward? What if the door is blocked by debris after the storm?
Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) or American Tornado Shelter Association have published performance criteria for storm shelters, and Texas Tech University had run an industry-best testing program for decades, there is currently no formal certification program.
Make sure that any storm shelter you select has been formally tested for debris impact resistance and bears the NSSA seal of approval.
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