Oklahoma’s Building Codes Don’t Factor For Tornadoes

Jun 13, 2013

Tim Marshall, a meteorologist and civil engineer, stands near a water tank in a tornado-ravaged Moore neighborhood. The tank fell from the sky after being carried a half-mile, Marshall says.
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The “Oklahoma Standard” is a phrase that describes how this state responds in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, like the tornado that ripped through Moore on May 20.

But that resiliency isn’t reflected in Oklahoma’s construction standards, which don’t factor for tornadoes.

It’s hard to make sense of the mess in Moore. When they’re in piles by the curb, all the houses — whether they’re single or two-story, brick or stone — look the same.

But buried in the heaps of wood, brick and nails, Dallas-based Haag Engineering meteorologist and civil engineer Tim Marshall sees clues to how these homes disintegrated when the 200 mile-per-hour winds moved in.

When disaster strikes, he moves in and starts to play detective. 

"I go in and look at these buildings and see how they fail," Marshall says.

They fail spectacularly. And a neighbor's poorly constructed home can become a cloud of shrapnel that shreds your home. But Marshall says these homes can be built better.

“Bolts and clips and straps in the proper place," Marshall says. "$500-$1,000 on a house, that’s all.”

Marshall says local and state officials should update the building code to make sure that happens. He said the same thing in 1999, when an F5 tornado cut a similar path through Moore. He even authored a study on the failures and how Oklahoma homes could be made safer. No one listened.

Shane Speegle is the Development Services Manager for the City of Moore. He says the city’s building codes were updated a few times between the 1999 and 2013 tornados. But those updates were nothing special. This city — like many — regularly adopts a set of generic, pre-written standards and enhances them with local tweaks and changes.

"”I doubt that pattern will repeat," Speegle says. "I’ll bet after this one, we’re going to see some changes."

But none of Moore’s residential building code upgrades address tornados. And Marshall says generic construction standards don’t either.

"Building codes do consider hurricanes, but they don’t consider tornados," Marshall says. "Go figure.”

Billy Pope is the CEO of Oklahoma’s Uniform Building Code Commission, a state agency that sets the minimum building code standards for the state.

"This is the third time Moore has been hit," Pope says. "And it doesn’t make a difference. It can happen anywhere. We hope there is no next time, but we know — within reason — that that’s going to happen again.”

The commission was formed in 2009, a decade after that first Moore F5 tornado. It has no inspectors or enforcement authority. A new version of the minimum building code was released last year, but the commission didn’t adopt it. And there are no additions to Oklahoma’s building code to help guard against tornados. Pope says that’s likely to change.

“That’s why we bring those engineers and architects together," Pope says. "To see if there’s something we can do. Put it in as a mandate to make those withstand a little more. Do a little better.”

Officials in Joplin, Missouri toughened building code standards after its EF-5 tornado in 2011. Alabama adopted a statewide building code after an EF-4 tornado devastated Tuscaloosa that same year, but it doesn’t require tornado-resistant construction. Officials in those states, like Oklahoma, worry new construction mandates will increase a home’s cost. Marshall says there are other pressures:

“Everyone wants back in their house as soon as possible, so pushing that agenda of better building is a difficult thing to do," Marshall says.

But Marshall says there’s an opportunity to build safer homes in Moore. Because, unfortunately, many of these neighborhoods are clean slates.