Oklahoma community proves code changes worth finding the political will

Nobody has gone as far as Moore.

The Oklahoma community – tucked between the state's capital city and its biggest university – has had its share of heartbreak. Since 1999, three EF5 tornadoes have swept through the area, killing dozens, injuring hundreds and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Last month, the community marked a somber fifth anniversary of the most recent – and most deadly – of those storms. On May 20, 2013, 24 people were killed, along with 200 injured, when a tornado cut a 14-mile-long swath across the state, from Newcastle to Moore.

After that day, Moore had seen enough.

By March 17, 2014, the City of Moore adopted some of the stiffest residential building codes in the country, becoming the first in the United States to adopt codes focused on combating tornadic impact on homes.

Since then, Moore has served as a beacon for researchers and policy-makers calling for sweeping changes to codes for communities in harm's way of these destructive storms. Yet, Moore remains today as the only city able to summon the political will to make the necessary changes.

It's a missed opportunity, one Western researcher warns, that we will pay for – in billions of dollars and hundreds of lives – until the lessons are heeded.

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President Barack Obama hugging a citizen of Moore, Oklahoma

Photo: President Barack Obama hugs local resident Julie Lewis at Plaza Towers Elementary School on May 25, 2013 in Moore, Okla. Lewis' husband and son rode out the storm in their storm shelter at their home, next to the school. Obama was joined by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and local and state officials to visit the area.

For two days, a huge storm system squatted over the U.S. Great Plains, dropping a series of tornadoes across the region. Five of those tornadoes hit Oklahoma on May 19, 2013. A sixth landed the next afternoon.

With peak winds estimated at 340 km/h (210 mph), the May 20 tornado touched down just northwest of Newcastle at 2:56 p.m. and stayed on the ground for more than half an hour. The funnel cloud – 2.1 km (1.3 miles) wide at its broadest point – cut a path of destruction through a heavily populated section of Moore, population: 55,081.

At that time of day, school was just wrapping up. Instead of heading home, students sheltered in place, and not in storm shelters or safe rooms – there were only two of those in the school district at that time. Instead, the students huddled against interior walls, ducked and covered as they practiced so often in areas like this.

Three Moore-area schools took a direct hit that day – Briarwood Elementary School, Highland East Junior High School and Plaza Towers Elementary School. Highland East's gym was destroyed. Briarwood sustained enough damage to be considered a total loss. Nobody was killed at either location.

What happened at Plaza Towers, however, changed the city forever.

The school had been hit by an EF4 tornado in 1974. It stood then.

This was an EF5.

Picture third-graders huddled against a wall inside the school when the storm hits – eight-year-old kids scared to death, separated from parents and loved ones. Then their school is wiped away in moments. The wall they had been braced against for safety falls on top of them. Seven die right there – one from blunt force trauma, six suffocated due to the weight of the debris.

Imagine what that does to a community. Imagine the pain. The sorrow. The anger.

Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis has lived those emotions every day for the last five years.

“Those kids are what changed everything.”

Photo of mayor of Moore, Oklahoma at a press conference

Photo: Glenn Lewis, the mayor of Moore, Oklahoma

In his two decades as mayor, Lewis has met two sitting U.S. presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. That number is three if you count George W. Bush, who was Governor of Texas at the time of their encounter. Lewis estimates he has given more than 1,000 interviews, including to Anderson Cooper, Matt Lauer, Lester Holt, Nancy Snyderman, as well as others from Great Britain and Australia. He has been invited to speak at conferences, even the White House.

All because his city sits right in the middle of Tornado Alley. And gets hit often.

Tornado Alley is a nickname given to an area in the southern plains of the central United States that consistently experiences a high frequency of tornadoes each year. Texas. Oklahoma. Kansas. Nebraska. South Dakota. They are all part of it. Tornadoes in this region typically happen in late spring and occasionally the early fall.

Moore know these storms and their destruction all too well. But it still took the death of kids to make the city take action.

Lewis, who took shelter in the Lewis Jewelers walk-in vault during the store, charged his fellow city leaders with fixing the problem.

A committee was brought together – the assistant city manager, community development director, two city council members from the hardest-hit wards in the community, plus two members of the Moore Homebuilders Association. University of Oklahoma professor Chris Ramseyer joined the discussions. Following his recommendations, the group's goal was to create residential building codes that would withstand an EF2 tornado.

"Constantly being at ground zero gives you a sort of unwanted celebrity status." - Glenn Lewis

Even though the changes were inspired by kids lost in a school, the city focused on residential building codes. It was all they could do; school construction isn't under the city's purview.

(The school district stepped up, however. In 2013, there were two safe rooms in the district. In the past five years, they've built two dozen more. Today, the district has completed construction on all but nine safe room projects. They expect to be 100 per cent covered by next year.)

“When it came to the residential codes, we looked at everything bottom to top. We started at the footing and foundation and went all the way to the top of the ridge row, the very top of the structure,” said Stan Drake, Moore assistant city manager. “We wanted to re-enforce our entire code. The homes we were looking to build would need to withstand 135 MpH (217 Km/H) wind speed.”

Within four months, the committee had designed a code to meet the challenge. The changes included a call for hurricane clips at every rafter connection, continuous wall sheathing on exterior walls and a wind-rated garage door. Many of the other recommendations are small-but-important details in the frame's construction.

A consulting engineer for the city estimated construction costs would increase by about $1 per square foot. A group of local builders concurred. That would increase the cost of an average Moore home by $2,000.

All agreed that was acceptable.

Once the new code was constructed, the committee then shopped the changes. First stop: Moore Homebuilders Association.

This is the point where many communities give up. It is often easy to blame others than to work with them. But working with one another is the key, Drake stressed.

“That was an interesting meeting. We had a lot of questions; we had a lot of naysayers. But we went in and told them. ‘This is coming. We know our council is in support – that is why we are here. They want to see something better.' We did a good job of convincing them. We want your input, but you need to get on board. Work with us – not against us.”

There were setbacks, challenges, stubborn holdouts who clogged the process like the chicken fry steak at the Okie Tonk Café. The biggest pushback came from the overhead door industry, a clash that persists somewhat to this day.

“We had some battles with homebuilders. But it's like anything worth doing, some people are just negative,” Drake said. “It doesn't matter what the issue is. But we overcame them quick. It was a team effort from the top down.”

Within 90 days of that initial meeting, the Moore City Council approved the new code in a unanimous vote.

“The key was that we were unified,” Drake said of the city's ability to summon the political will to make a difficult change. “It started at the mayor and city council. They said, ‘This needs to happen. We're going to make it happen.' Their concern was re-building, the re-development this community.”

Lewis echoed. “The key to our success was there were no hidden agendas. We laid it all on the table. We didn't have a definite solution in mind. Our goal was to rebuild this community and we felt the way to do that was to stiffen the building codes. Anybody who lives in Oklahoma has the same chance of getting hit as anyone in Moore. That's just the part of the country we live in. It's happened – somewhere, sometime every year. I am thankful we did it – it was a good move.”

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Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale

Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF) - Rating Tornado Intensity
Scale Wind Estimate Typical Damage
Strong frame houses leveled off foundations and swept away; automobile sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 metres (109 yards); trees debarked; incredible phenomena will occur.
Well-constructed houses leveled; structures with weak foundations blown away some distance; cars thrown and large missiles generated.
EF3 225-265 km/h SEVERE DAMAGE
Roofs and some walls torn off well constructed houses; trains overturned; most trees in forest uprooted; heavy cars lifted off the ground and thrown.
Roofs torn off frame houses; mobile homes demolished; boxcars overturned; large trees snapped or uprooted; light-object missiles generated; cars lifted off ground.
EF1 135-175 km/h MODERATE DAMAGE
Peels surface off roofs; mobile homes pushed off foundations or overturned; moving autos blown off roads.
EF0 90-130 km/h SEVERE DAMAGE
Some damage to chimneys; branches broken off trees; shallow-rooted trees pushed over; sign boards damaged.

With the changes in place, one question remained years later: Did they make a difference?

In 2015, Austin College economics professor Kevin M. Simmons teamed up with Western Engineering professor Greg Kopp and Economics adjunct research professor Paul Kovacs, from the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), to see if the measures taken in Moore would have cost benefits across the entire state of Oklahoma. Their published findings showed the new Moore building codes successfully delivered a 3:1 ratio of initial cost to savings over a lifetime of resilient measures.

“It's cost effective for the State of Oklahoma, who do things that make sense for their area,” Kopp said. “All we're saying here is, ‘We need some longer nails for the roof sheathing and we need hurricane straps in the roof. That's really all we're saying, which is about $200 per house.”

While many in the building industry turn a deaf ear to Kopp's recommendations, some have listened.

While Canadian building codes are different from American building codes, Kopp believes recent studies indicate similar steps should be considered in Canada, particularly along the 401 corridor from the Great Lakes region to the upper St. Lawrence Valley.

“Our recent analysis of damaging tornadoes in Canada suggests that inexpensive mitigation measures, such as using hurricanes straps to hold-down the roof, could also reduce or eliminate structural damage to houses in tornadoes like the one that hit Angus, Ontario last June,” explained Kopp.

The findings were published by Weather, Climate and Society, a journal of the American Meteorological Society, in an article titled Tornado Damage Mitigation: Benefit/Cost Analysis of enhanced Building Codes in Oklahoma.

It is not a stretch to say the changes not only saved money and lives, but the city itself.

“People had this fear, they believed this myth, that ‘Moore is a target. We need to move out of Moore.' We heard that – a lot. It is pretty scary when people are telling you that,” Drake said. Those are understandable sentiments, as Drake knew more than one family who lost everything in multiples storms.

Today, the codes are no big deal in Moore.

All the battles are in the background and what the city has now are a series of codes and a whole lot of new houses ready for if – when – the next storm comes. Drake has not had a single complaint about the codes in well over a year. Many builders even admit they are a selling point for the community.

Photo: Red Cross workers survey memorials

Photo: Red Cross workers survey memorials.

The only regret is they did not have the courage to make a change sooner.

“I think about that,” Lewis said. “It's better to start it and have it down, than to wait until after a disaster and wish you had-of. Because if you wish you had-of, then it is too late.”