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Column - Why don't Oklahomans build tornado shelters?

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Column - Why don't Oklahomans build tornado shelters?
Alexandria Minnesota 225 7th Ave E
P.O. Box 549
56308

People in Oklahoma must all be dumb because they don't have tornado shelters or even basements.

I get mad when I hear people say that. I have a kinship with Oklahoma, a state I've visited quite a few times since 1963. My oldest brother, Jimmy, met his future wife in Chickasha, Oklahoma when he was in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s, stationed at nearby Fort Sill. Tina, his wife, was born in Holland. After World War II, her large family emigrated to Australia and later to Oklahoma.

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During my visits to that state and their visits to Minnesota, I cannot count how many times we talked about tornadoes. Tina had a trembling, terrible fear of them. We would tease her, laugh at her and call her a "weather paranoiac." Even Jimmy, who ought to have known better, teased her.

After they moved to Oklahoma City, it took Tina 15 years to talk Jimmy into building a smallish storm cellar in their back yard. Finally he did. And good thing, too. The monstrous F5 tornado in 1999 shrieked and roared past their house, less than a mile away, as Tina, kids, grandkids and neighbors jam-packed together in that shelter. Jimmy had died of a heart attack nine years earlier, but he would be happy, knowing Tina was right to insist on having a shelter.

We in Minnesota thought it odd they and others in Oklahoma didn't have basements, like "civilized" Minnesotans did. Such was our cocky Yankee attitude at the time. Jimmy always said something about soil conditions. Too wet or something. Basements would leak.

After a second monster twister devastated Moore two weeks ago, I decided to research the lack of shelters.

First of all, Oklahomans are not dumb. A good many of them cannot afford underground shelters, of which the most basic kind costs about $3,000 minimum. Poverty in that state is more widespread than here.

Aside from expense, there are other factors that explain the problem:

1. Unlike northern climates, where pipes must be installed beneath the frost line, homes in more temperate areas, such as Oklahoma, can be built on just a slab.

2. Many of the soils in Oklahoma are very clay-like. As they swell with water and then dry out, they expand and contract, which can wreak havoc on basements and foundations. Water tables tend to be higher in the South. Thus, basement leaking and mold can be ongoing problems.

3. Building basements in Oklahoma, Texas and elsewhere is certainly not an impossibility, despite problems. However, most builders (and buyers) figure the much higher expense, in the temperate climate, is not feasible for them.

4. Owners who rent homes and builders who build them are not required to provide shelters.

5. Oklahomans tend to be politically very conservative, and most balk at governmental intrusions of any kind, including mandates or codes for underground shelters and/or basements.

Only about one in eight Oklahoma residents has tornado shelters, and the reason is mostly a combination of one or more of the factors listed above.

Last but not least, there is yet another explanation. The kinds of ferocious tornadoes that decimated Moore are extremely rare. Throughout history, Oklahomans in most tornado outbreaks did survive by huddling in interior rooms or hallways.

The Moore monsters did at least cause a resurgence of interest in building more public and private shelters in "Tornado Alley." Federal and state help programs might be expanded to offer low-interest loans and maybe grants. Some governmental entities in Oklahoma are thinking it's time for mandates and building codes that include shelters. Let's hope so.

In the meantime, let's remember this: Oklahomans are not dumb. They are certainly no dumber than us Minnesotans who keep living in a state that plunges below zero much of the year.

• • •

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at dennisdalman@jetup.net.

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