Oklahoma Storms: What Is It Like Living in Tornado Alley?

Categories: Weather

Courtesy KFOR
In the map above, my mother's house is on Western just north of 119th. My Grandmother's house is just east of Eastern on 12th Street. The red line is the May 3, 1999 tornado. The blue line is the May 8, 2003 tornado and the green line is the May 20, 2013 tornado, which overlapped the path of the 1999 storm.
This summer will mark my 10-year anniversary of moving to Houston. I don't miss Oklahoma often, but the last two days have been particularly hard. I've been glued to the Internet and NPR, absorbing the news with an emotion that can only be described as helplessness.

Moore, Oklahoma, the area hardest hit by the Monday's tornado, is my hometown. Before moving to Houston, I lived in Moore for 23 years. I was born there and graduated high school there. Almost all of my family lived within a one-mile radius. I remember, once or twice a school year for 12 years, having storm drills where we huddled against an inner classroom wall with hardbound books opened over our heads. I remember the tornado sirens being tested at noon every Saturday. During the course of my life my family and friends have been very lucky to have never had a direct hit from a tornado, but there have been some close calls. Monday was probably the closest.

As I am writing this, the death toll of Monday's storms is at 24 and is expected to rise. That includes 9 children.

I've seen and heard so many comments, both earnest and sarcastic, from newscasters, online commenters and even from my own friends on how such a thing could happen in an area so well-known for its storms. I've decided to write an explainer after the jump for those who didn't grow up in Tornado Alley to help address some of those questions. Feel free to leave your own questions in the comments.

"Why Aren't All Public Buildings Required To Have Basements? Why Don't Homes Have Storm Shelters?"

For a long time it was believed that huddling in an interior room without windows, or against an interior wall, was enough to protect you from a tornado. If you didn't have a basement or safe room, a closet or bathtub with a mattress piled over you was the best option. All that changed on May 3, 1999. The tornado outbreak that struck Oklahoma that afternoon -- also striking Moore -- contained winds possibly higher than 318 mph, the strongest ever recorded on earth. I say "possibly" because the measuring equipment promptly broke. That tornado also led, in part, to the creation of the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which is based on damage caused by winds. Both the tornado in 1999 and Monday's tornados were level 5, the highest rating on the scale.

In the days and weeks following the 1999 tornado, prices for building equipment and supplies skyrocketed. The state passed the Emergency Price Stabilization Act to stop that from happening, but what it didn't prevent was the influx of hundreds of companies selling above ground tornado shelter/safe room construction in houses. Steel-enforced safe rooms can greatly increase the survival rate, but they also cost a lot of money, starting at $4,000.

For public buildings such as offices and schools, building a basement on an already-standing building isn't feasible. And it would be extremely costly for apartment complexes and offices to build a shelter, either underground or above ground, for their entire capacity.

It's hard to say why individual homes don't have basements. In some places, the hard wet clay is difficult to build in. And the water table in Oklahoma is pretty close to the surface. Cellars can be leaky, moldy and can flood easily. In the north, codes often require builders to build foundation below the frost line. If you're already digging that deep, why not add a basement? But the ground rarely freezes in Oklahoma so it does't have the same requirements. Another answer is that they just fell out of fashion. My father's house, which was built in the 1950s, has one. I spent one long afternoon inside not long after the 1999 storm. My mother's house, which was built in the 1980s, does not. Most home builders don't even offer them any more. But to understand why you have to understand a bit of the psyche of those who live in Tornado Alley. More on that in a minute. in the meantime, here's an article that asks "Why aren't there more storm cellars in Oklahoma?"

Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB via Compfight cc
One of the many soldiers who responded to Moore after the tornado passed.

"Why Are Homes Made Out Of Wood Instead of Concrete?"

For one, building with concrete is incredibly cost-prohibitive. EF 4 and EF 5 tornados are incredibly rare and, at that point, there really isn't any construction material that can withstand winds of 250mph or more. Here is a good article on the difficulties of building a tornado-proof home, but really, there is no such thing as a "tornado-proof" home.

"I'd Much Rather Deal With Hurricanes/Earthquakes/(Insert Natural Disaster of Choice) Than Tornados"

Literally everyone I've talked to since Monday who is not an Okie has told me how terrified they are of tornados.This is probably true for pretty much everyone. At least with hurricanes, typhoons and tsunamis, you get at least some warning. But no place is paradise. After living in both Houston and Oklahoma (and being married to someone who grew up in Florida) I'm not so afraid of any kind of weather, but I think it's more a matter of being prepared. And nothing prepares you for something like tornado or mudslide or wildfire or hurricane season than living through a few years of it. But there is no season for earthquakes.

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First of all, if you've voted for a GOPig and/or TeaTard last time, you need to pull yourself by your bootstraps.  Since you rabidly defend your belief on keeping taxes down & keeping the Federal Government out of your lives, you are on your own.   You will no longer receive FEMA funds.  Three huge tornados is enough.  You cannot rebuild & expect help from anyone, including socialized law enforcement, first responders, etc.  I think God is trying to punish the Christian base that has grown hateful toward others.  "Stupid is as stupid does", but not on my dime.  This whole area needs to be roped off & declared uninhabitable.  I would not protest if you made all of this area into a huge prayer garden.  We are not going to bail your ass out anymore.  


I appreciate this article. I too am a born and raised Okie, now Houston resident. People who have never lived in Tornado Alley don't really understand what it's like. I've actually been annoyed watching news coverage of the recent events because so many of the reporters are clueless. They almost seem to be trying to place blame for this natural disaster, a completely unpredictable and random thing. Thank you for shedding a little bit of light on the subject.

Duncan McAlynn
Duncan McAlynn

But it would have recognized the poor grammar. ;-) I'm just teasing. I love you guys!

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Actually, since we're is a word spell check wouldn't have caught that.


@DeathBreath  Here is what I suggest.  Let's name this Jesusland.  This is the Xian chance of a lifetime.  Show your faith.  Build a house & await your funnel flight home to him.  Halleluiah.  


@DeathBreath Why do you assume the worst?  Besides, your profile says you live in "Waco, TX."  So you're within the area roped off.  

By the way, blaming God is a Republican thing....


@laura.sprehe Thanks for reading. I agree, I think the national news was what made me want to write this the most (plus DOZENS of Houstonians saying to me they'd rather live through a hurricane than a tornado).

Coincidentally, the NYTimes did a great story today on how Plains culture is, in part, one of the reasons why homes are not built with storm cellars. It corroborates much of my own experience growing up there.


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