May 22, 2013
"You had to be underground," The Weather Channel's Mike Bettes put it, "in order to survive this tornado."
He was not exaggerating. The massive storm that hit Moore, Oklahoma yesterday -- featuring winds up to 200 mph -- didn't simply put those above ground at risk of being swept up in its funnel. The tornado also took the smallest objects of everyday life -- down to pebbles and even dust -- and effectively converted them into bullets and shrapnel. Much of the carnage that so often results from tornadoes is the result of a terrible phenomenon known by an appropriately terrible euphemism: "debris impacts."
Larry Tanner is the manager of the Debris Impact Test Facility for the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University. In that capacity, he focuses on the (relatively) optimistic side of devastating storms: sheltering people from them. One of Tanner's jobs is to test shelters and their components in his lab, creating several-hundred-mph winds and debris storms -- which can't be mathematically simulated -- to analyze those shelters' ability to withstand a natural storm. Another of his jobs is to work with FEMA to assess the performance of storm shelters after tragedies like the Oklahoma tornadoes of 1999. Or the Missouri tornado of 2011.
Or, now the Oklahoma tornado of 2013.
There are thousands of shelters in Oklahoma -- to the extent, Tanner told me, that the state "has been the most active shelter state, probably, within the United States." Yesterday, however, that wasn't enough. The storm was deadly in part because there were so few places -- underground places -- for people to escape to. As Weather Nation's Paul Douglas noted last night, fewer than one in 10 Oklahomans have access to the basements that stand the best chance of keeping them safe when a "monster" -- another appropriately awful euphemism -- strikes.