By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"My daughters confided to me a few years later that they had nightmares for some time," he says. "When the spring comes, you're living it. You're keeping your eyes open. You go through something like that, and you start paying attention."
After 1999, Oklahoma homeowners built 6,000 residential storm shelters—underground bunkers and above-ground, concrete-reinforced safe rooms—with the help of newly available federal grants. Another grant program later added several thousand more shelters.
Ernst Kiesling, a civil engineer at Texas Tech University and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, says he has been promoting the construction of above-ground storm shelters built to tested standards since the early 1970s. "It's only been since Oklahoma in 1999 that people became aware they needed something," he says. "It's been slow to catch on."
Shelters, to the extent they have been built, are thought of as more of a rural necessity. Think Auntie Em and Uncle Henry clambering into their Kansas storm cellar in The Wizard of Oz.
At Tech's Wind Science and Engineering Research Center, which was formed in 1970 following a Lubbock tornado that caused 26 deaths, Kiesling tests the strength of shelters and building materials using a canon that simulates objects being hurled by tornadic winds. A two-by-four shot at 100 mph replicates the force of one carried by 250 mph winds.
Following Hurricane Rita, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began providing Texas with money for disaster mitigation and several local jurisdictions—a group of counties in the Panhandle and another group in the Southern Plains—have used the money to provide individual homeowners up to $3,000 to build high-grade storm shelters. "They just finished building 1,500 shelters in the Panhandle, but for some reason, in Dallas-Fort Worth the idea hasn't evolved," Kiesling says of the program, which has been available for several years.
Asked why Dallas doesn't participate, Shaw, the city emergency official, said in an e-mail that the city has only recently become eligible to participate. "I will have our staff pursue this so that we do apply when the next opportunity presents itself."
It's a good thing I asked. One day, perhaps some future shelter-grant recipient in the city may thank me by inviting my wife and me into their FEMA-funded, Kevlar-lined storm closet when our 5,000 years of favorable odds come to a spectacular end at our house.
Tim Marshall makes no excuses for his fascination with tornadoes, hurricanes and other extraordinary weather phenomena. As a kid growing up in Chicago, he called in weather readings to one of the local stations and was personally affected when on April 21, 1967, an F4 twister touched down four miles from his home in suburban Oak Lawn and tore through Chicago's South Side, killing 33, including a few of his classmates. "I was already a weather kid, a weather nut," Marshall says. "That kind of sealed it."
Educated as a meteorologist and engineer, he has made his living as an expert on storm damage, and he likes to be on location when nature's hammer comes down. "I testify in civil litigation, and it's useful for people to know I was there. Lawyers love the fact that I ride out hurricanes on the Gulf. I'm not just some landlocked engineer from Dallas, Texas," the 52-year-old Marshall explains. "I've seen tens of thousands of homes destroyed in my lifespan. You see the same failures over and over again. They occur routinely."
In tornado-struck areas in Texas and Oklahoma, he has seen a surprising number of single-family homes that were not properly constructed and fail to meet building codes that typically require them to withstand straight-line 90 mph winds. A big strike in the Dallas area would no doubt confirm the extent of the problem, he says.
"Anchors. Braces. Connectors. Those are the three things that are so important that so often I see done wrong," he maintains. "Code says you have to anchor the house to the foundation with bolts every 6 feet. You'll find them without a nut and washer on the bolt, or just a washer, or they skip the bolts all together and use cut nails."
In Arlington, in the two subdivisions that sustained F2 damage in the March 2000 tornado strike that also sent a twister into downtown Fort Worth, Marshall found houses where brick walls weren't anchored to the house frame. "Four out of five houses I looked at had some sort of fatal flaw," he says. Houses with attached garages, the prevailing suburban style, are inherently vulnerable. "You have a door panel, 7-by-16 foot that blows in easily, leaving wind inside your garage. That internal pressure helps pop off the roof from below. I see numerous cases where there was increased damage to houses that had an attached two-car garage."
He adds, "The Three Little Pigs did us a great disservice." Brick houses, or rather frame homes with brick veneer, are easily punctured by tornado debris missiles. And in many cases, he finds houses where the brick was not properly tied to the frame, so the brick walls simply fall down. The nursery rhyme, Marshall says, should have had another verse about steel-reinforced concrete—materials that make interior spaces in high rises one of the better places to weather a violent tornado.