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May 5, 2013

Tornado veterans balance preparedness, practicality

(Continued)

Jasper County gets more tornadoes than any other part of Missouri, Stammer said, but almost all are weak. The enormous tornado in May 2011 was so unusual – it formed in about a minute and plodded along at a fraction of the speed of the typical tornado that size – that Stammer coined a word for it: “oddball-ness.”

Facing tornadoes in Jasper County and Joplin means planning ahead. Stammer is involved in roughly nine emergency planning drills a year with other agencies and non-profits. The city had participated in a four-hour drill for earthquake response just four days before the tornado hit.

Agencies around the area already know who is responsible for what, and who has what kinds of equipment. There are agreements in place for things like providing shelter with churches and universities. “The disaster scene is not the place to exchange business cards,” said Stammer.

Timothy W. Manning, a deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noted he didn’t need to deploy FEMA’s specialized search-and-rescue teams after the Joplin tornado because local groups did all of that work so rapidly.

Stammer does one thing differently now. He would never have planned for a tornado that large before May 22, 2011. Now, he tells other emergency managers to think big.

“If you’re thinking flooding, think a big flood,” he counsels. “Overwhelm yourself.”

Building Codes

Planning to respond to tornadoes and actually building for them are different, however. Model building codes would require contractors to frame houses and roofs that withstand hurricane-force winds. But not all states adopt those models, and the ones that do frequently lower wind standards, according to a study of coastal states last year by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

Even after a tornado, a community may not change building codes for a variety of reasons, including fear from homeowners who were unscathed that their lack of tornado-resistant features could affect their property values.

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