Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Twister Truths: Can Nothing Survive an EF5 Tornado?

The skeleton of a home on Lakeview Drive in Moore, which was ravaged by the May 20, 2013 tornado.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The skeleton of a home on Lakeview Drive in Moore, which was ravaged by the May 20, 2013 tornado.

This is part two in our Twister Truths series where we use data to kick the tires on the conventional wisdom underlying severe weather policy in Oklahoma. Read part one here

Despite the risk that comes with living in Tornado Alley, many Oklahomans are reluctant to build tornado shelters. And state and local building codes don’t factor for twisters.

One reason, researchers say, is a public perception that “nothing can survive an EF5 tornado.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any structure outlasting the violent winds and the devastating cloud of shrapnel that accompanies an EF5.

Comments like this one, spotted on a tornado-related story on Gawker’s science blog io9, summarize a common perspective:

“With an F5 tornado you get the ‘house swept away – only foundation is left’ situation – and the only *safe* place from an F5 is underground or out of it’s path. These tornadoes are the ones that literally have pealed up the road where it passed.”

This notion that the worst tornadoes obliterate everything in their path has even factored in some Oklahomans’ deadly decisions to get in their cars and try to outmaneuver storms. In one particularly harrowing story, a mother and her 17-day-old baby were sucked out of their family minivan in the EF5 tornado that carved through the Oklahoma City area on May 31.

But is it true: Can nothing survive an EF5?

Understanding the Scale

A massive storm front in May 2013 spawned a swarm of tornadoes, including this one near the Kansas/Oklahoma border.

Gene Blevins / Reuters/Landov

A massive storm front in May 2013 spawned a swarm of tornadoes, including this one near the Kansas/Oklahoma border.

The question of survivability has two components: People, and the structures they inhabit when severe weather strikes.

But before we tackle that question, it’s important to understand what, exactly, an EF5 tornado is, and how the most severe twisters are categorized.

Directly measuring a tornado’s wind speed is difficult because the storms tend to destroy instruments. So meteorologists have to estimate tornado wind speeds. The original “Fujita Scale” that ranked these estimates was used from 1971 to 2007, but the estimates weren’t really based on actual, measured tornado wind speeds.

So researchers adopted the classification system used today, the “Enhanced Fujita Scale.” That scale, which goes from EF0 to EF5, still uses wind speed estimates, but ones that are based on more-accurate surveys of various tornado-damaged buildings and structures. An EF5 tornado includes gusts of winds of over 200 mph, based on these updated damage assessments.

When an EF5 tornado touches down in habited areas, you can surely expect massive amounts of damage. But just because a tornado meets a meteorological definition of an EF5 storm, it doesn’t necessarily mean you or your house will experience those conditions.

And despite the horrific scenes of tornado destruction that have become all too familiar in Oklahoma, EF5 tornadoes are survivable — both for people and structures. And that has important public policy implications.

Structures & Building Codes

Tim Marshall points at the foundation

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Tim Marshall, a meteorologist and civil engineer, points at the foundation of a home destroyed in the May 20 tornado in Moore. The home's walls were ripped from the foundation because nails were used instead of bolts.

The “nothing can survive an EF5” myth is a detriment to policies concerning home and commercial building construction, says Timothy Marshall, a meteorologist and a civil engineer at Haag Engineering in Dallas.

“The logic goes: If nothing can survive, why do anything?” Marshall told StateImpact in a July interview.

Just because a tornado is given an EF5 designation doesn’t mean that every structure in its path actually experiences the full brunt of it. In fact, recent research suggests that most structures don’t.

One such study was by Kai Pan, Peter Montpelier and Masoud Zadeh, who analyzed destruction from the May 3, 1999, F5 tornado in Moore. One thing they found was a “damage gradient” that was most severe in the center of the tornado path and less severe near the edge. That’s not surprising, but it’s worth remembering that when we talk about tornado damage: it’s not all or nothing.

Stella and Jack Howard (left and right) with their daughter, Dawnelaina (center), sit with the remains of their Moore home. The Howards built this house after their last one was destroyed by the May 3, 1999, twister.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Stella and Jack Howard (left and right) with their daughter, Dawnelaina (center), sit with the remains of their Moore home. The Howards built this house after their last one was destroyed by the May 3, 1999, twister.

Even homes across the street from each other experienced the effects of the same winds differently, depending on quirks such as whether their garage doors faced the wind or not.

Marshall has studied how buildings withstood the F5 twister that tore through Moore on May 3, 1999 as well as the EF5 on May 20, 2013. What he says seems surprising: Most of the destruction in an EF5 doesn’t come from 200 mph winds, it comes from much weaker winds.

Other research of tornadoes in other states back up Marshall’s observations.

The tornado that killed 162 people and damaged more than 8,000 buildings in Joplin, Mo. in May 2011 provides another example of how, even in the most severe storms, most damage is done by comparatively weak winds.

While Joplin’s tornado was classified as an EF5, no EF5-level damage was found on any of the buildings, according to a study by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Of the 5,000 buildings that were destroyed, most of the damage was done by winds of EF-2 level winds of 135 mph or less, the engineers found.

From The Joplin Globe’s Wally Kennedy:

Had the houses in the tornado zone been built with hurricane ties — metal clips that fasten the rafters and trusses to the exterior walls of a house — the damage would have been much less. It is one of the recommendations coming out of their analysis.

“The study team believes that a relatively large number of buildings could have survived in Joplin if they had been built to withstand hurricane winds,” said Bill Coulbourne, a member of the ASCE engineering team that came to Joplin.

Damage from winds of 135 mph and less is largely preventable. And Marshall says the necessary upgrades are pretty cheap. “Bolts and clips and straps in the proper place… $500-$1,000 on a house, that’s all,” he says.

After surveying the damage in Moore in 1999, Marshall says he told city officials they should upgrade the residential building code to require stronger foundations, hurricane clips and other metal brackets and ties to strengthen walls and roofs.

No changes were made, but city and state officials tell StateImpact stronger construction standards are likely to be enacted after the May 2013 tornadoes in Moore and Oklahoma City.

People & Storm Shelters

The EF5 question isn’t just about building codes. It also relates to tornado shelters. As the Gawker commenter above illustrates, many people believe that the destructive power of an EF5 makes an underground shelter the only safe place to go.

That isn’t true. Properly built, above-ground safe rooms — typically a hardened indoor closet or room reinforced with concrete and steel — are just as safe as underground shelters, says Texas Tech’s Ernst Kiesling, who’s also the executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association. In fact, above-ground safe rooms can be safer because they’re more likely to be used when severe storms move in, he says.

“People don’t get into shelters until the last minute, and by that time there’s usually already a lot of wind, rain, hail and, possibly, debris blowing around,” he says. “People look out the window and hesitate, and decide they’ll try to ride it out.”

There have been no reports of any deaths in properly built above-ground safe rooms, Keisling says.

Yet the perception that the only way to survive an EF5 is by seeking refuge in an underground shelter persists. “It’s an untruth that’s very, very damaging, and I wish we could find a way to overcome it,” Kiesling says. “But, unfortunately, once an idea is out there, you can’t kill the idea.”

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  • BRob11

    Even some seasoned TV personalities continue to perpetuate the myth that you need to be underground or running. Too many people have died because of this misconception. You CAN build your home stronger. You CAN add an above-ground saferoom that can protect you and your family, even in the worst of storms. We have got to get past these ideas that you can’t.

    • jr023

      tv news people are getting to be Animatronics reading off the monitor repeating thinks they have to know is wrong but they look good for the camera

  • Sasha Kirk

    “That scale, which goes from EF0 to EF5, still uses wind speed estimates, but ones that are based on real-life surveys of various tornado-damaged buildings and structures.”

    The Fujita scale has always been used in accordance with damage surveys. NOAA goes out after the tornado, surveys the damage and only then issues a rating. Dr. Fujita used the Super Outbreak of 1974 to finalize the scale because he had hundreds of miles of damage to work with

    • Good point, Sasha. I meant the EF scale uses “more accurate,” damage surveys, not that the original F scale didn’t use any. I edited the post to reflect that, but not before your comment.

  • Ernest P. Bovine

    The best way to “overcome the myth”, add it to the dang codes! If it’s a generally enforced standard, it quits being an “added” cost. It becomes an accepted price for doing business…evenly, across the board, to all contractors.

    • Assume you live in Oklahoma, Ernest? Where about?

      • Ernest P. Bovine


      • JeanSC

        If you study the maps and the ‘homeowner’s worksheet’ in FEMA 320, you’ll see that many States in addition to Oklahoma ought to have “safe rooms” and better construction of the building envelope added to their building codes.

        • Jomann

          But you can force people to spend money if their homes get destroyed! -the banks probably

  • JeanSC

    Thanks for this article. I’m pretty well educated about the topic of construction vs. tornadoes (partly thanks to Tim Marshall), and have spent more time than I wanted to posting comments after articles elsewhere closely following strong tornadoes, trying to educate other commenters about the truth about what proper construction can do, especially for FEMA 320 “safe rooms,” which are intended to survive EF5 tornadoes and proven to do it. Another message I try to convey is that reinforced concrete construction is the best, proven way to get resistance to EF3 and stronger tornadoes. I think if you need a “safe room” per FEMA 320, the building envelope should be built to withstand an EF3 tornado. Insulating Concrete Forms have been proven to be able to do this. I’ve also been told about a Monolithic Dome building in Moore, Oklahoma, which survived a stronger tornado with just a crack. Modern reinforced concrete construction types typically include insulation in the sandwich, so your heating & cooling bills will be slashed even if a tornado doesn’t hit the building. However, to get proper protection with reinforced concrete of any construction, it has to be overhead as well as in the walls. Many advocates of “green building” don’t realize this because they’re not thinking about resistance to natural hazards.

  • Emily Jesse

    Build homes with poured concrete reinforced with rebar. Same with the roof. Fully secure door fromes and window frames. Laminate your glass windows In fact plenty of construction options to make your home nearly invincible to weather. We can build places to survive 9.0 earthquakes and f5 tornados and cat five hurricanes and even survive forest fires. Maybe its time to start building properly and no longer out of sticks.

  • goblin072 .

    Well that makes no sense that a above ground shelter is just as safe as underground.

    Hmm lets say a car get thrown at a above ground closet shelter? That vs a deep underground shelter. I’ll take underground any day.

    • Jordan Smith

      You’re mom prefers the underground dungeon too where she gets r@ped by a pack of n!ggers all day long.

    • Moonchalk

      Cars shrug off even semi trucks crashing into them. Many have been drowned in their underground shelter when the storm they were sheltering from dumped large amounts of rain…

    • Bret Zeller

      Goblin, people need to understand that steel and concrete can do almost anything. Germans during World War 2 were master bunker builders, even above ground, and their cheapo bunkers could easily withstand dozens of 2,000 pound high explosive bombs inflicting direct hits.

  • Steve Prevesk

    With all due respect, I have seen more than one expert on television state that if you lived in Errol Estates in Jerrall, TX on April 27, 1997 when an EF5 tornado struck, you had no chance of survival based on the calibration of debris — safe house or not. It is generally considered to have the strongest wind field ever recorded and it was only moving at 10 MPH. In the track zone there were no survivors and 27 deaths. First responders described remains as “not being able to discern humans from animals.” I cannot for the life of me understand why you would not build at least a safe house or an underground shelter living in Oklahoma. In fact, if you have a family and don’t have something – to me it borders on negligence.

    • Moonchalk

      They are incorrect. No EF-5 hit on a monolithic dome has EVER structurally damaged one. FEMA even has a pic of a small EcoShell dome (from the Monolithic company) that survived the direct hit of the EF-5 that hit Moore OK. No damage and that is not as strong as a monolithic dome home.

    • Craig

      Quick Note: I believe the correct name is Double Creek Estates, not Errol Estates.

      • Steve Prevesk

        Craig you are exactly right – my mistake. Thank you for the correction!

  • Moonchalk

    Monolithic domes have no problems with EF-5′s. None has ever sustained structural damage from one.

  • thundercloud47

    I grew up on a farm in Southern Missouri that had a sturdy cellar that we used on more than one occasion.Several years ago after a deadly Oklahoma storm I had a conversation with a Doctor at work who was from that area. I asked him why people in Oklahoma did not build more storm shelters. He told me that in the past people had built underground shelters but due to the soil, snakes loved hiding in them especially poisonous ones. So folks just naturally got away from building them. By the time folks get to those shelters the tornado has probably knocked out the power. In other words you’ll be fighting snakes in the dark.

    • Kadiliman

      Sounds like a good horror movie.
      “Forced by the fierce winds of a tornado, Bob and Susan are forced to find shelter in an abandoned storm shelter and find something much worse.”

  • Keith Wing

    All lies I tell you. The mainstream media has said many times that my reinforced concrete underground house would be turned to dust if an EF-5 was even in the same county. I even heard that they cause the earth to spin backwards sometime. Seriously though, you really can’t expect any house made out of wood to hold up to much unless you screw it and glue it. As for reinforced concrete underground structures…..I would bet my life they could survive an EF6 unscathed considering they survived close to ground zero during nuclear blast testing.

  • Hugo Sanchez

    i had one it is crazy

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