Southern tornado threats prompt demand for more storm shelters


There are three hardened security rooms that provide shelter from extreme weather threats at Mustard Seed in Brandon, Mississippi. The rooms feel intentionally familiar and double up as a laundry room, library, and office space. The Mustard Seed is both a residential facility and a community space for adults with developmental disabilities.

The rooms are strong enough to withstand the force of a tornado, with 12-inch-thick concrete walls and ceilings and reinforced steel doors.

“We wanted these rooms to be familiar places for our Seedsters when we have bad weather,” said Del Adams, the executive director of Mustard Seed, referring to program participants. “They know it’s the library or an office. It gives them a familiarity in uncertain times.

The Mustard Seed security rooms were installed over ten years ago. Plans for a third residential building will also include a safe.

“These are spaces they can comfortably stay in longer while we monitor the weather. It works well,” Adams said.

A vault under construction at the Mustard Seed in Brandon, Mississippi.  (Photo courtesy of Mustard Seed)

In parts of the Deep South more accustomed to hurricanes, tornadoes are increasingly becoming an inconvenient new reality that has prompted communities, businesses and homeowners who can afford to invest in storm shelters or safe rooms. .

The 2022 tornado season was particularly active. Over a two-week period beginning March 22, there were 49 confirmed tornadoes in Mississippi, according to data from the National Weather Service office in Jackson. That’s almost as much as was reported in March, April and May last year, according to weather authorities.

The same severe weather system that spawned storms across multiple states on March 22 claimed one death in the New Orleans area when an EF-3 tornado touched down in suburban Arabi. This tornado cut an 11.5 mile path of destruction through a residential neighborhood and had peak wind speeds of 160 mph, making it the strongest on record for the New Orleans metro area, according to the National Weather Service.

Tornadoes in the South have become more frequent and stronger

Tornado season peaks in April but typically lasts until late May. November and December can also be active months for tornadoes.

The storm surge in late March appears to be part of a troubling pattern that weather experts have noted in recent years as the frequency and strength of tornadoes in the Deep South have increased.

That’s largely due to persistent dry conditions in the southwest in combination with warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico, according to Paul Pastelok, senior meteorologist and long-range forecaster at Accuweather.

The lingering effects of the La Niña weather pattern, resulting in warmer than normal water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, is another contributing factor to the higher number of severe storms.

And as the frequency of tornadoes increases, the vulnerability of Southeast residents has become a major concern.

Unlike traditional tornado alley in the Plains states, the Southeast is more densely populated.

A March 2020 study published by the American Meteorological Society found that the potential for tornado impact on mobile homes is about 450% higher in Alabama than in Kansas due to the higher number and distribution mobile homes.

The same study found that nearly 50% of tornado deaths in the United States involved people seeking shelter inside a manufactured home.

“When tornadoes hit the Mississippi Valley and Mid-Gulf states, you have to think about reception structures. These are not built on deep foundations due to the high water table. Underground shelters like you see in the north are not feasible,” Pastelok said.

Companies that sell residential storm shelters have seen an increase in interest from homeowners and businesses.

Rick Maradiaga of Torshel Storm Shelters in Jackson said that over the past six years the company has installed about 1,100 shelters in homes in Tennessee, East Texas, Florida, Georgia, of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. About 70% of the shelters are above ground and anchored on concrete foundations, he said.

Shelters can only be built on new construction, he said, and buried shelters can be difficult and more expensive to build depending on the grade of the soil. In Louisiana, for example, the water table is high, especially around New Orleans, which is below sea level.

Storm shelters can be built underground while security rooms are reinforced structures designed to protect against extreme weather events like tornadoes and hurricanes. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) has specific criteria for how these structures are supposed to be built and also provides community grants for state and locally operated community storm shelters. Residential secure rooms can cost up to $3,000 depending on size.

Increased interest in residential storm shelters

In Alabama, state lawmakers have taken steps to make shelters more accessible to residents in recent years.

On April 27, 2011, the state experienced one of the deadliest and most destructive tornado outbreaks in US history, killing 240 people and injuring thousands in Alabama alone.

A car drives on a road in Pleasant Grove, Alabama August 23, 2011. An 80 mile long trail of destruction destroyed a wooded area in the 10,000 mile west of Birmingham.

Nine people died that day when tornadoes swept through Madison County. At the time, church and town buildings were opening their doors to people seeking shelter, said Huntsville emergency management officer Scott Worsham.

“There were a lot of people who came out and bought safe rooms, and our county government took a serious look at community shelters in rural areas of the county,” he said.

There are now 12 operating shelters in the county, although some are privately owned. Over the past year, Alabama lawmakers approved two measures that would make storm shelters more accessible to community members. A law requires counties to designate community storm shelters and removes any liability a church or municipal building might face for providing shelter. Residents can also claim a tax credit of up to $3,000 for 50% of the cost of installing a residential storm shelter. The structure must meet FEMA qualifications and must have been purchased after January 1 of this year.

“It’s hard in a populated county to decide where to open one, but now every county around us has community shelters,” Worsham said.

Interest in residential tornado shelters also increased following the violent tornado outbreak that hit Kentucky in December, according to Jim Bell, director of operations for the National Storm Shelter Association. The organization was founded after the Oklahoma City tornado outbreak in May 1999, which sparked interest in residential secure rooms. Bell said, however, that these shelters are not always built to code or properly tested to ensure their safety. The NSSA has worked closely with FEMA to develop codes for how these structures should be constructed.

But as more communities in the South have to deal with the potential impact of tornadoes, Bell said awareness and preparation are key. He said efforts to update building codes to require shelters have slowly taken shape.

Communities need to mitigate casualties before a storm hits and plans need to be in place whether they involve a hardened security room or a community shelter.

“People need to be prepared for what they are going to do when a tornado hits. You need to know where to go and what you need to have in your safe place. The reality is that it’s too late if you wait until then. “, did he declare.

Maria Clark is a generalist reporter for The American South. Ideas for articles, advice, questions? Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for the American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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