Are Community Tornado Shelters a Magic Bullet Fix for Reducing Tornado Casualties?
Updated: Jun 10, 2019
Alright, this is something that needs to be addressed. I am seeing more and more people simply say, "We need a greater number of tornado shelters for people to flee to... This gives people safer places to go during tornadoes... etc.". I think it's important to note some issues assumptions being made with this notion. I list some concerns below.
1) Who pays for the shelters? FEMA requires 25% of the cost to be covered by the purchasing entities. Most Southeast U.S. counties cannot afford this cost. They are already on shoestring budgets. The money they would have for obtaining shelters would likely go to other day-to-day needs to keep the county operating. This is especially true in southern Alabama where there are virtually no community shelters in these more poverty-stricken counties.
2) Where do the shelters get placed? As my research has indicated, NEARLY 80% OF MOBILE/MANUFACTURED HOMES (MH) IN ALABAMA ARE LOCATED IN EXURBAN AND RURAL AREAS (i.e., outside of MH parks). With such a scattered MH pattern, where is it best to put them? This is a HUGE hurdle for a cash-strapped county to jump. It is likely that the county emergency managers know their populations very well and are left with the issue of determining whether or not a shelter would be of use given the more rural nature of MHs in Alabama. Again, this is especially true in southern AL where AL has a more rural development pattern.
3) Who opens/cleans/takes care of the shelter? This requires staff and again who pays them? Not to mention there are instances where shelters have been used for areas where crimes are committed when not in use. (e.g., https://www.nwfdailynews.com/news/20181011/man-arrested-for-molesting-child-at-hurricane-shelter)
4) In my experience, there isn't even a good list or a go-to list for where community tornado shelters are located. During my recent research, I had to use a variety of techniques (i.e., calling counties, going to news websites, searching online, finding lists, etc.) just to find the location. And even when the location was given, many times it wasn't in standard form such as an address that could easily be mapped. Many were simply, "Down the corner from the local Dairy Queen at the intersection of Pine and Route 5". So, even if a resident wanted to flee their home they have no quick way of navigating to the shelter. This is a barrier to them leaving their home, or what they know....
5) People also assume that MH residents have access to a vehicle.... THIS IS A TREMENDOUS ASSUMPTION. Many do not have a vehicle and if they do, they likely only have one. This is especially true in rural, poverty-stricken counties of the Southeast where vulnerability is high. So, how do they make it to the shelter?
6) Does the shelter allow pets? If it is a FEMA shelter, likely no it does not. Most families won't abandon their pets and this causes them to not seek shelter. (e.g., https://www.nbcdfw.com/weather/stories/Public-Storm-Shelters-Wrestle-With-Provisions-for-Pets-256674151.html)
7) How much warning lead time do they have to get out? Most won't flee for shelter until they have to and that means waiting until the last possible minute (i.e., likely when they receive the tornado warning). Most people also seek secondary confirmation and that effects their response times. It likely causes them to not immediately flee their homes, but rather delay until they receive secondary confirmation. The lead time for the Beauregard tornado was 12 minutes and the storm was moving at 60 mph, low visibility, etc... In fact, one woman was killed when she was thrown outside of her home when she tried to flee the tornado... Which brings me to my next point...
8) How far are the shelters from their homes? My current research (It's in peer-review... be patient and it will be out soon... I hope) addresses this issue and many parts of AL MH residents have to travel 20+ miles to get to the closest shelter. Dr. Daphne LaDue (a fellow researcher out of the University of Oklahoma) had a great tweet highlighting many of these issues she has seen in her research as well (https://twitter.com/fcst70/status/1102396809857634304).
9) As Dr. Kevin Ash (A member of my research team from the University of Florida) and others work illustrates, most residents flee to a nearby trusted family member/acquaintance, church, or school. Shelters really aren't the first option, so residents may explore other means before actually deciding to go to a shelter. Clearly, this ties into many of the prior listed issues above.
10) Most residents get scared to flee because their lack of directional awareness/storm visibility. They may misjudge the direction of the shelter relative to the oncoming tornado given issues of low cloud bases, rain-rapped, vegetative cover, nighttime tors, storm speed across the ground, etc. This causes a fight or flight mechanism to kick in and most choose to fight because they are unsure of what to do.
11) Well can't they just go earlier during the tornado watch? This seems like a large ask for individuals to do. What if they work? What if they need to get out of the shelter once the door is closed? (Once the shelter door is shut, no one can leave). Just assuming that MH residents will give up an entire day taking shelter isn't practical or realistic. UNFORTUNATELY, IT IS ALSO THE BEST PROACTIVE ACTION THEY CAN DO AND SHOULD DO!
12) BIAS BIAS BIAS. There are many biases that influence decision making (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bias). Time and time again we see residents stay put and not evacuate because of personal beliefs or bias. (i.e., when it's my time to go, it's my time to go). This causes them to not even attempt to take action. People are rooted in who they are and asking them to take shelter may not be something they take to heart. THEY AREN'T YOU AND MAY HAVE DIFFERENT OPINIONS/PRIORITIES. Some would call this stubborn, and that may be correct. Alas, it ultimately means that there is a CHOICE to taking shelter or not. This choice often complicates things immensely while also frustrating people such as researchers, NWS forecasters, emergency mangers, etc. beyond belief.
There are many more issues that have to be addressed too..... This is just a short list off the top of my head. The takeaway is that STORM SHELTERS ARE NOT A MAGIC BULLET FIX TO THE TORNADO PROBLEM, ESPECIALLY IN THE SOUTHEAST. They ARE a PART of the solution but not THE solution....
In my opinion, there are combination of things that need to be done to solve the issue. Better building codes and better enforcement of those codes. Better understanding of resident decision-making, improving communication between Integrated Warning Team members (IWT; National Weather Service forecasters, media, emergency managers, etc.) and vulnerable residents, reducing poverty so that residents have the means to micro-protect their homes and themselves (e.g., putting tie-downs on their MHs, purchasing renters/homeowners insurance, purchasing personal storm shelters, etc.), improving education and technology so that residents can be better informed during these events, etc. What the future holds, we will see. But I do know that it is going to take teams and teams and teams of people to solve this issue. Physical scientists, social scientists, engineers, media, government employees, decision makers, policy makers, etc. will all have to work together to reduce future casualties. It's not an easy task and it will take some times, but we have some of the best minds in the world working on ways to improve community and individual resilience in the face of disaster. We can't give up now.
The items and words expressed in this blog post are copyrighted by Stephen M. Strader 2019. Please contact me if you would like to utilize any of the above for any purposes. I'd be happy to discuss.