A Common Sense Law
by Wilbur Witt
I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and spent the first ten years of my life there. We moved tomTexas in 1962. Both places we’re situated in what is referred to as “Tornado Alley,” although I don’t know exactly where this alley is, I suppose anywhere you have to duck and dodge a funnel. My early childhood was filled with warnings from the old black and white TV, with the discordant tone, followed by some official voice announcing a “Severe tornado alert!” Frankly, I consider ALL tornadoes to be severe. I’ve never known anyone who saw one of these things approaching that said, “Oh, that’s just a little one, I’ll just ignore it.” When one of these dudes even passes O VER your house it will slap your screen door back and forth like a playing card on a kid’s bike. Believe me, I KNOW!
For all the planning, and education one may have, that all goes to into your pants when you meet these fellas to face for the first time. There is a common misconception that the power of the tornado is all within the confines of the funnel itself. This will get you killed. The tornado is an extension of a very pissed off thunderstorm. The storm itself is violent. The tornado is violent, and the air surrounding the tornado is violent. The tornado gets its supply of air from somewhere. It is funneling hot air up into the thunderhead which it collects from the area around it. So the closer you get to the actual funnel the harder the wind will blow until you get to ground zero. If you are in a car, trying to out run this contraption you are pre-screwed, and when it finally catches up with you, and it will, you ARE screwed! It will explode your head and pull your lungs out of your body.
I saw the results of the Jarrell tornado here in Texas back in ’97. We went down, as a team of Realtors, to try to help the citizens of that community rebuild after a devastating F5 that plowed right through the middle of town. The twister started out over Belton Lake as a small, snake like thing that was actually funny to look at. It appeared to be a snake with its head cut off, twisting and jumping, and not really making contact with the ground. By the time it traveled the thirty or so miles to Jarrell it had grown into a big boy!
The funnel was so large it appeared that the entire thunderstorm had literally touched the ground. This is deceptive to the novice, who may even think that what they’re seeing is a downpour of rain, as the actual funnel is shrouded by debris and rain. When you see the news pictures of the destruction a tornado can bring it loses something. When you walk among it you are, excuse the pun, blown away! I was struck by two things. My fellow Realtors will appreciate the first. When you pour a foundation there are 1/2″ bolts situated in the concrete to attach wood, or stone and permit the workers to construct the walls. I saw these bolts bent to a perfect right angles by the sheer force of the tornado. Look at the lug nuts on your car. Now imagine a wind so powerful that it can bend that thing in the MIDDLE! The other thing that struck me was dirt roads. This was a upper middle class bedroom community. The people here generally worked in the tech industry down the road in Austin. As I was walking on predominantly dirt roads, I commented to someone that one would have thought the roads would be paved. One of the State Troopers solomly told me, “They were.” Most if us got sick with some sort or respiratory flu. Look at your neighborhood. Now imagine every car battery, every bottle of Mr. Clean, every heart prescription, everything it takes to make a modern, upscale neighborhood, all vaporized, cast into the atmosphere, and then settles to the ground right where you are walking! The first responders had this same problem during 9/11.
The amount of dead people was incredible. It was so bad that I bagan to believe the formula was simple, if you were home, you were dead! However, some survived. The survivors mainly had jumped into holes. The main hole being a drainage pipe going under a road. As I walked among the rubble I came up with an idea. Why no shelters? When I got back to my office I had meetings with our builders, asking what would withstand such an event. Every one of them told me 18″ or reinforced concrete would have the best chance of survival. Now nothing is perfect, but they assured me that this configuration would afford the best chance of getting through a hit by a tornado. We drew up plans for a closet, to be positioned in the center of a house, constructed completely out of 18″ reinforced concrete, with a door that had locks similar to a bank safe. A fully functional closet where you kept clothes. When the tornado approached, the family calmly goes there, sits with their hands over the back of their heads, and rides it out. Cost? Between $1,800 to $2,500. I was told this was “cost prohibitive.”
Now, many years later, I am looking at this again. In California there are standards of construction that plan on “the big one,” and demand that certain features be built into a home to give the occupants a better chance of survival during a major quake. We have a functional idiot in New York City outlawing Big Gulps, but there are no laws in “tornado alley” that I know of to protect families during a tornado!
When a young couple builds their home they put all manner of things into it. Some are necessary, and, frankly, some are not. The cost of what I proposed has undoubtedly gone up. When I came up with this idea the cost of our average home was about $85,000 here in Central Texas. That, on the upper end, would make the percentage around 3%. Now this is where it really gets silly. In this area the buyer generally is shielded from a lot, if not all, closing costs, which the builders pay as an incentive to buy. Most of the VA loans in this area “roll” everything into the loan in the land of the “dollar down.” Now, let’s just say Mr. and Mrs. Homebuyer finance everything. Their $100,000 home would bump up to about $103,000, oh hell, let’s make it $105,000. How much difference do you think that would make in a payment, on a fixed rate, over 30 years? Even in a conventional market the cost is rolled into the loan. There may even be a break on home insurance, I don’t know. The question is simple. What’s your family worth?
A simple, common sense, building code. Oh, the builders will bitch, the Tea Party will rail about private property rights, and Obama will make a vist to Oklahoma City. The statistic folks down at UT will cite the probability of getting hit by an F5, but then, they don’t have to search for the bodies, now do they?