I was interviewed on Bloomberg Friday. The video link is here. One of the questions was about saferooms and given the horrible tornado in Moore last week it is an important topic. I live in North Texas and have seen my share of tornadoes. Surviving one depends on many factors but the most important are the size of the storm, the amount of time you have to prepare and the type of structure you are in when the storm hits. A well-built engineered structure is the safest. The worst is a mobile home.
Permanent homes provide reasonable shelter from small tornadoes and with modest enhancements in construction can also provide reasonable shelter from many strong storms. That would account for almost 98% of all tornadoes (EF0-EF2). The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety suggests building homes to meet their Fortified Home Program. Some communities are adopting aspects of the program in their building codes. Moore OK, is one of those. But that would not apply to homes built prior to the enactment of enhanced codes.
For residents of permanent homes to get protection from violent tornadoes some type of shelter is required, in residence or underground, and the options for those are growing every year. We recently converted our hall closet to a shelter. Retrofitting an existing structure is not ideal and if an EF-5 tornado took a direct hit on our house, it’s not a sure bet we would survive. But since 1950, there have only been 59 EF-5 tornadoes, including the one last week, out of more than 60,000 tornadoes. So we are talking about an extremely rare event. And also remember that to receive the EF-5 rating, the tornado does not have to exhibit EF-5 winds for the entire path. The tornado that hit Joplin 2 years ago was rated EF-5 but that rating applied to about 6 miles of the 21 mile path. The tragedy there, like the tragedy in Moore is that the strongest winds occurred over a populated area.
The public policy question is whether or not we should require the installation of shelters by homeowners. They do add a significant cost to the price of a home. Some homeowners, myself included, are willing to pay the added cost but I’m not sure that most people would, even those that live in tornado alley. A second policy option is to offer a subsidy to homeowners for a shelter. Dan Sutter and I have written extensively about this. This is a very expensive program and will reduce fatalities but at a higher cost than programs to reduce casualties from other risks we face. Oklahoma has such a program but the recipients are decided by a lottery. My state, Texas, has a similar program and we live in a county that participates in it. But I feel strongly enough about this that I did not apply for the subsidy. (That was a popular decision in my house.) If public money is to be used in this way, it should go to vulnerable structures like mobile homes. And if it is decided that public money will be used to subsidize the installation of shelters in permanent homes, it should be means tested so that people with the income to bear the cost are not receiving the subsidy at the expense of those who cannot.