May 23, 2013
The Law and Economics of Tornado Shelters (and Angelina Jolie)
Posted by Christine Hurt

Here is my disclaimer:  I'm from "tornado alley."  Here is "my tornado."  The Lubbock tornado was 43 years ago (gulp), when I was an infant.  I have no memories of it, just the story that my parents told me.  We went down the street to a neighbor's storm cellar; the tornado didn't come that close to our neighborhood; we left the dog in our kitchen.

This week, as the history of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado is being written, I have read articles and heard radio stories asking why more residents in tornado-prone areas don't have storm cellars or safe rooms in their houses, schools, etc.  Not only why don't residents take more precautions, but why doesn't the law require new houses have tornado protection (similar to earthquake building requirements). 

I never had a basement until I moved out of Texas to the Midwest.  In West Texas, and it seems Oklahoma and maybe further north, basements aren't really necessary.  Land is flat and available.  If you want more square footage, building out is cheaper than digging a basement in the really, really hard soil.  I remember having two friends my entire childhood that had basements, and everyone was really, really jealous of them (mostly because there seemed to be a lot more kissing in basements than in main floor family rooms).  Basements would also be handy in the case of a tornado, but are rare.  Instead of digging a basement, the law could require a separate storm cellar in a backyard or attached.  The NYT article estimated this cost as $4k, which seems like a low estimate to me.  So, is adding $4k to every newly constructed home prohibitive?  Is it wise?

The problem is that everyone doesn't need their own cellar, and most people will never need one.  If  you think of all the homes that are situated in tornado alley, the probability of a particular home needing a cellar is really, really low.  And the cellar doesn't save your house.  It saves you, if you happen to be at your house.  At least in the Lubbock tornado, many victims were in cars, or fleeing their cars.  (Here are some pretty interesting tornado data.)  The reporters seen to think the probability of needing a cellar is really high in Moore, which also had a tornado in 1999 (no fatalities, but property damage).  In a perfect world, there would be one storm cellar, safe room or basement per block, not per house.  That's pretty hard to regulate.  But, having a storm cellar or safe room per school or office building doesn't seem like a bad idea.  (I haven't heard anyone talk about mobile homes/trailer homes, which are even less stable than a home with a shallow foundation.)

Interestingly, this same week, commentators in the news have questioned Angelina Jolie's choice to have genetic testing for breast cancer (that costs $3-4k, a little less than a storm shelter), then have a double mastectomy when she learned a rare gene gave her probability of getting breast cancer was 87%.  Well, no one in tornado alley has an 87% chance of dying in a tornado.

The other variable, besides the probability that a tornado will hit not only your town, but your block, is whether you would go into the storm cellar.  Here, the NYT article and the NPR story seemed to suggest that there is a low level of panic for residents of tornado alley.  That may be true.  The summers of my childhood seemed to be filled with tornado warnings and tornado watches, which we soon began to ignore.  These warnings would shoot across our broadcast TV channels, and some families had storm radios in case the electricity went off.  But, after awhile, you get a little desensitized to the daily tornado warning.  And, of course, there are stormchasers, a category of thrill-seekers that I still don't understand.  But even non-stormchasers can be mesmerized on their way to the cellar watching the sky, which looks really awesome in the middle of a storm.

But I guess what bothers me about these "why don't you have a cellar" questions is an underlying sense that people in tornado alley are stupid, so we should regulate their housing.  I disagree.

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