Trend of more tornadoes and fewer basements could be dangerous combo for Ohioans

0
30

Seeking shelter in a basement during a dangerous storm may seem like a no-brainer.

But for a growing number of Ohio and Midwestern homeowners, that underground refuge may not even be an option.

The share of new, single-family homes in the Midwest that are built with a basement declined 10% over 10 years from 2013 through 2022, the most recent year for which data is available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual construction survey. That decrease in basements comes even as the number of tornadoes in states like Ohio have more than quadrupled from 13 twisters in 2003 to 56 in 2023, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Making matters worse is the fact that many communities don’t have storm shelters or other safe places that can withstand strong winds, said Stephen Strader, a tornado expert and associate professor of geography and the environment at Villanova University. Even in towns that do offer storm shelters, Strader said many residents aren’t aware they exist or don’t know how to find them.

And when minutes matter, Strader said people can’t waste time checking Google for where to go.

Not much advanced warning before a tornado strikes

“The average lead time nationwide for a tornado is about 13 minutes,” Strader said about when tornado warnings are issued. “If you’re more than 20 minutes away (from a shelter), you’re kind of behind the eight ball already.”

If a community has a storm shelter, they’re sometimes listed on county or city websites or can be found through a local or statewide emergency management agency. But Strader said the shelters are few and far between and aren’t always listed online.

Strader and a group of other experts and meteorologists are trying to build a map of safe rooms across the country, but the lack of information has made that task difficult. Strader spent months just looking for and plotting the locations of shelters in Alabama on a map, with 49 more states to go.

“Most municipal websites say they have shelters, but they wouldn’t even have addresses … They’d say it’s behind the Dairy Queen at Second and Fourth (streets),” Strader said. “The problem is most people are geographically illiterate and they couldn’t place themselves on a map. … The deck is quite stacked against them.”

As number of tornadoes have risen, Ohio has built four community ‘safe rooms’

The Ohio Emergency Management Agency has funded the construction of four safe rooms around the state in recent years, including one at Delaware State Park in 2017.

The others are located in Oat Gasper Township in Preble County, in Lucas County and in Licking County. An additional community safe room is also under construction in Walnut Township in Fairfield County, according to the Ohio EMA.

The Delaware State Park safe room has become a crucial way to keep campers and park visitors safe, said Alex McCarthy, director of Delaware County Emergency Management.

Just last week an EF1 tornado touched down in central Delaware County and continued north into central Licking County, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). The twister reached estimated peak wind speeds of 100 mph, was an estimated 600 yards wide and traveled 36.3 miles, according to the NWS.

If severe weather is expected, McCarthy said he’s in communication with park leadership to make sure the shelter is unlocked and ready to go.

While the safe room is the only one currently open in Delaware County, McCarthy said the emergency management agency there re-evaluates its storm plans every five years. With the success of the one at Delaware State Park, McCarthy said he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s interest in adding more elsewhere, especially at other outdoor attractions.

“For every emergency manager it’s concerning that we’ve got residents out there who don’t necessarily have good spots to stay safe from tornadoes,” he said.

Getting to a safe room can be dicey

While more safe rooms could help save lives, Strader said the people who need them most don’t always have the ability to get to them. That’s because people without a basement are typically less affluent and may not have their own car or another reliable form of transportation as severe weather rolls in, Strader said.

Likewise, poorer communities that are most in-need of safe rooms may struggle to afford to build them, said Jonathan Gaddy, a former Alabama emergency official and now an assistant professor of homeland security and emergency management at Idaho State University. A safe room big enough to hold between 75 and 100 people usually costs around $100,000 to $200,000 to build, Gaddy said.

For that reason, Gaddy said it’s important that people not just have a plan but also a backup plan if dangerous weather strikes.

Gaddy said a safe room for many Ohioans could simply be the basement or an interior room at their home, the home of a neighbor or nearby family member. Either way, Gaddy warned that Ohioans should start planning for the next tornado now with more likely in the months ahead.

“Not everyone is going to have the same level of attention to severe weather, but we need to talk about it,” Gaddy said. “It is not only ideal for individuals to develop a plan ahead of time, but it is absolutely essential.”