The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

June 16, 2011

Most tornado fatalities occurred where people lived

JOPLIN, Mo. — Margaret Tutt was a practical woman who lived alone and followed a standard drill when storms approached: She grabbed a purse packing a flashlight, a battery-powered radio and medication for a breathing problem, and went into her interior bathroom.

But on May 22, as the 92-year-old followed that routine, the single-story brick home on South Wall Avenue where she had lived since 1952 was demolished by an EF-5 tornado, said her daughter, Mary Ann Christman.

“That’s where she died,” Christman said. “She did exactly what she was supposed to.”

Tutt’s fate was not an exception. More people died in their homes in last month’s tornado than in stores, vehicles or anywhere else, according to a tally of deaths by location assembled by the Globe.

Globe reporters were able to pinpoint where the storm hit 106 victims, or two-thirds of the 153 people killed. Of those 106 victims, 57 people, or 54 percent, died where they lived, including houses, apartments and nursing homes.

Thirty-four people, or 32 percent, were killed in nonresidential areas, including stores and churches. The others, about 14 percent, died in vehicles or outdoors, including the Kansas City-area police officer who was fatally injured by lightning while conducting rescue work.

Large concentrations of deaths were found at The Greenbriar, a nursing home, where at least 13 people died; at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, where at least nine died; and at big-box stores on Range Line Road, including Home Depot and Wal-Mart, where at least seven died.

With so many dying in their homes, city leaders and weather experts are looking for ways to improve residential safety as Joplin starts to rebuild.

STRONGER CODES

The Joplin City Council has informally agreed to strengthen the city’s building codes to require safety measures including hurricane straps on new construction and extra bolts in structures to tie walls to their foundations, Mayor Mike Woolston said. Steve Cope, the city’s building code supervisor, told council members last week that much of the tornado damage happened because fasteners that hold houses to foundations were either lacking or failed.

Woolston said those changes would be fairly inexpensive for homeowners, with hurricane straps estimated to cost about $600 compared with a shelter that could cost thousands.

“A lot of the time, a roof is set on top of the walls and nailed in, but the nails just keep it from moving around. They don’t really anchor the two together,” he said. “The strapping will help hold those roofs on, which in turn helps hold the walls up.”

At a public meeting June 7, several council members said they opposed adopting a mandate that homeowners have a basement or shelter on their property. Woolston said many residents will likely consider adding those features on their own.

“I don’t know that we’ll necessarily need to encourage storm shelters for a while, but we would probably encourage that simply because of the safety factor,” he said.

Several weather experts agree that a shelter is the safest place to be when a tornado hits.

“The best place is underground in a concrete- and steel-reinforced hidey-hole,” said Bill Davis, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Springfield.

Some part of the home should be reinforced with concrete and steel “if you want to protect yourself from that type of wind speed and that type of destruction,” he said.

Keith Stammer, Jasper County emergency management director, said that in the rush of rescue work, nobody kept records of how many people survived or died in bathtubs, bathrooms, basements or other shelters at their homes.

But there are few basements under houses in the area because the water table is high, the ground is rocky, and in some places there are concerns about old mining tunnels, he said.

That seems to be the trend nationwide. Only 28 percent of new homes had full or partial basements in 2009 — a drop from two decades ago, when 38 percent had one — according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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