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.
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.
TOP CHOICE: SHELTERS
Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, which promotes safety standards for shelters, said mandating a shelter might be appropriate for non-owner-occupied buildings, such as apartment complexes and nursing homes. But he does not favor requiring shelters in private homes. Instead, he prefers offering incentives for shelters to homeowners.
“Any incentive is effective,” he said. “The amount doesn’t matter as much as the homeowner thinking it’s a good idea and being motivated to take the first step.”
Kiesling said ground-level shelters can be just as safe as those underground. A number of building styles can withstand the worst winds, including reinforced concrete, steel layered between plywood, and concrete-filled masonry blocks. But even those shelters, which can be added to a home, are fairly uncommon, he said.
“Probably not more than 3 percent of houses across the country have safe rooms,” he said. “The number among new houses built in the Midwest may be as much as 15 percent, but new homes are a very small part of the housing inventory.”
Bill Gallus, a meteorology professor at Iowa State University who toured the destruction in Joplin as part of a research team, said there are many small changes that can add safety to homes and are far less expensive than a shelter.
“Because the added cost during rebuilding is relatively low, and because 90 percent of tornadoes are EF-2s or lower, making small changes can help a lot of people and have a big benefit,” Gallus said.
Stronger building standards could reduce the level of damage to homes, especially those located away from a tornado’s center, thus increasing the chance of survival for people in those homes, he said.
“If the houses were designed more strongly, it’s almost like you could reduce the spread of total destruction to closer to the center (of a tornado),” he said.
Gallus stopped short of endorsing a mandate that all buildings have a storm shelter, saying that might be “overkill.”
“But if I moved to Joplin, I’d add a shelter, if only for the peace of mind,” he said.
Even the most prepared residents still might not be any match for the unpredictability of a tornado that can sweep away heavy appliances and vehicles. There are no easy answers for the families of people who sought shelter and died while the person right next to them lived, the weather service’s Davis said.
Marsha Frost and her two children, Gabriel, 9, and Sebastian, 10, were among those families. The three took shelter in their apartment on South Connecticut Avenue when the tornado hit, according to Angela Winkler, Frost’s sister-in-law. Marsha Frost and Sebastian perished in the storm; Gabriel was thrown into an SUV in the apartment complex’s parking lot but miraculously survived, Winkler said.
Davis said an EF-5 tornado like the one last month will likely be deadly, no matter how much construction standards are improved.
“This type of tornado, with over 200 mph winds in the center, there is not much you can do,” he said. “It sounded like a lot of people were doing the right things, but people were still killed in those areas.”
Stammer, the county emergency director, also questioned whether any location could be reliably safe during such a monstrous tornado.
“When you’ve got something that large that goes that slow, it ends up being a grinder,” he said. “My personal view is, I don’t know how you mitigate for an EF-5 tornado that on the ground slowed down to between 10 and 20 miles per hour.”
Christman, who lost her mother in the storm, already has a walk-out basement in her home south of Joplin. Depending on the severity of a storm, she alternates between seeking shelter there and seeking shelter in an interior bathroom, just as her mother had on May 22.
She said she is considering adding shutters to the window in her basement for extra reinforcement against strong winds.
JIM SUHR and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
“THERE’S NOTHING 100 percent,” said Bill Davis, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Springfield. “Some people will be in the wrong place and still not be injured, and other places, people will take the time to be there and not survive.”