How the Building Industry Blocked Better Tornado Safeguards

How the Building Industry Blocked Better Tornado Safeguards 1

Engineers know how to protect people from tornadoes like the ones that recently devastated parts of Kentucky, but builders have headed off efforts to toughen standards.

WASHINGTON — After a tornado killed 162 people in Joplin, Mo., safety experts and cement manufacturers proposed a way to save lives: Require most new apartments, commercial structures and other large buildings in tornado-prone areas to have safe rooms — concrete boxes where people can shelter, even if the building around them is torn to shreds.

Safe rooms provide “near-absolute protection” during a tornado, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They can cost as little as $15,000 for a small shelter in a commercial building, and possibly could have saved the six workers who died when a tornado destroyed the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., two weeks ago.

But the 2012 proposal was blocked by a little-known organization that sets the building codes widely used by states and cities around the country. That group, the International Code Council, is made up of state and local code officials from around the country. Before it could vote, the proposal was scrapped by a council committee made up of building industry representatives and local code officials. The committee found the 2012 safe room proposal to be “overly restrictive and contained several technical flaws.”

While experts say the technology and design standards exist to better protect people and buildings from tornadoes, attempts to incorporate those designs into building codes have repeatedly been blocked or curtailed by the building industry, according to public documents and people involved in efforts to tighten the model codes.

“It really does kind of boil down to money,” said Jason Thompson, vice president of engineering at the National Concrete Masonry Association and one of the proponents of the 2012 change. “There’s just different groups out there that want to keep the cost of construction as low as possible.”

The stakes are growing. Tornadoes, long associated with Oklahoma, Kansas and other sparsely populated Plains states, appear to be shifting eastward, occurring more frequently in states like Kentucky and Tennessee, according to Victor Gensini, a professor in the department of geographic and atmospheric sciences at Northern Illinois University.

Although scientists lack the data to clearly connect tornadoes with climate change, a warming planet is producing more humid air near the Earth’s surface, which may in turn be fueling more tornadoes, he said. And it’s putting more people at risk. “The population density as you go east of the Mississippi River increases exponentially,” Dr. Gensini said.

Neeta Satam for The New York Times

Building codes are a state responsibility in the United States. And, rather than each state devising its own building codes from scratch, the International Code Council issues a series of model codes for residential and commercial building, plumbing, electrical and even wildfire safety. States can then adopt those codes, modifying as needed.

As engineering science improves, the council’s model codes are updated every three years. Proposed changes need to be approved by council members.

But before those proposals get a vote, they must first be endorsed by committees that include industry representatives. That step is designed to weed out ideas that experts feel are poorly thought out or hard to implement. The process is designed to ensure that only changes with broad consensus will advance.

But it also gives industry an opportunity to block changes that could increase their costs. Adding a safe room can cost from $7,000 for a house to as much as $100,000 for a version that holds about 100 people in a commercial building, according to Jim Bell, director of operations for the National Storm Shelter Association.

The 2012 safe room proposal was introduced by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, a research group backed by the insurance industry that studies changes in building construction that can reduce damage during storms, fires and other disasters, then lobbies for the adoption of those changes. It was joined by trade groups for the cement industry, whose members stood to benefit from increased demand for safe rooms.

But at a hearing before the committee that would decide whether the proposal would advance to a vote by the council, representatives of the building industry lined up to oppose it, according to a video recording of the hearing.

“It’s totally inappropriate,” said Ron Burton, who at the time worked for the Building Owners and Managers Association and had previously overseen codes and standards at the National Association of Home Builders.

“I’m concerned that this is just not the fix,” said Jonathan Humble, a director of construction codes and standards at the American Iron and Steel Institute.

“It’s way too soon to do a knee-jerk reaction,” said Chad Beebe, an official with the American Hospital Association.

The committee voted down the proposal. It approved a narrower requirement for safe rooms in most new schools, as well as emergency facilities like police stations and 911 call centers.

Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator at the time, called the code-development process a perennial debate between safety advocates pushing better design in the face of disasters, and developers who want less red tape.

“There’s a lot of building codes in this country that are based on hope: We just hope it won’t be that bad,” Mr. Fugate said. “And people die.”

Steve Hebert for The New York Times

The idea of requiring safe rooms more widely got a boost in 2014, when the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an office within the Department of Commerce, issued a report on the 2011 Joplin tornado. It recommended installing tornado shelters in new and existing multifamily residential buildings, commercial buildings, schools and other buildings in high-risk areas.

The national institute initially planned to push for that recommendation to be incorporated into the model building codes, according to Marc Levitan, a tornado researcher at the institute and the lead investigator for the Joplin report.

Those plans caught the attention of the home building industry, which wields particular clout in the process of developing codes and boasted to members one year that just six percent of the proposals it opposed made it past the committee stage.

The National Association of Home Builders has more than 140,000 members, and typically resists changes that would make homes more expensive. It had opposed the safe room requirement proposed in 2012, according to Stephen Skalko, an engineer who worked at the time for the Portland Cement Association and was one of the people who introduced the idea of requiring safe rooms.

In September 2014, the home builders association alerted its members that the national institute and FEMA wanted to try to get the council to mandate safe rooms for new and existing apartment buildings, businesses, schools and other large buildings in high risk areas for tornadoes.

Instead, the council slightly expanded the requirement for safe rooms for schools so that it applied to additions to existing buildings.

“After discussions with many of the key stakeholders, it was understood that an iterative process over time would have more support and would be more likely to be successful,” Dr. Levitan said by email. He declined to identify the stakeholders that had expressed concern.

A spokeswoman for the builders’ association, Elizabeth Thompson, declined to comment on specific proposals. She provided a statement from Chuck Fowke, the group’s chairman.

“NAHB strongly supports building codes that result in safe, decent and affordable housing,” Mr. Fowke said. “We continue to advocate for cost-effective, common-sense building codes that promote housing affordability and make new homes safer and more efficient.”

William Widmer for The New York Times

Even as the push to require safe rooms across a wide range of buildings fizzled, engineers were working on an even more ambitious goal: Changing the way buildings are designed and constructed in tornado zones, to survive all but the most violent storms.

Designing a structure to withstand tornado winds involves two basic steps, according to Don Scott, who has helped develop tornado-resilient building standards at the American Society of Civil Engineers. First, the roof must be tightly secured to the walls, and the walls to the foundation, in order to transfer the pressure from the tornado downward to the strongest part of the building.

Second, windows and other openings have to be strong enough to survive the debris, like tree limbs, that gets hurled through the air at high speeds during a tornado. If a window breaks, the wind pressure from the tornado is forced into the building, “like blowing up a balloon,” Mr. Scott said. Covering windows with a special glaze can prevent them from being shattered, similar to hurricane-resistant windows in Florida, he said.

Mr. Scott and his colleagues at the civil engineering society set about turning the findings from the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Joplin report into building requirements to be incorporated into the next version of the model building code in 2024.

Here too, the building industry succeeded at whittling down those aims.

Stronger design standards and impact-resistant windows work for any type of structure, Mr. Scott said. But as the engineering society began its work, Mr. Scott said he got a warning from Gary Ehrlich, the head of standards at the National Association of Home Builders: If Mr. Scott’s group recommended applying those standards to homes, the recommendations would never get into the model codes.

Ms. Thompson, the spokeswoman for the home builders’ group, declined to make Mr. Ehrlich available for comment.

Evidence suggests that tornado-resistant building standards don’t add significantly to the cost of a home. After a tornado devastated Moore, Okla., in 2013, the city imposed new regulations to reduce damage from future tornadoes. Those changes added about $3,000 to the cost of a new home, according to Elizabeth Weitman, the city’s community development director.

“It is well worth the money,” Ms. Weitman said.

Even so, the American Society of Civil Engineering decided to be cautious. When its new tornado standards were released on Dec. 1, they applied only to a narrow group of buildings, such as hospitals, fire stations and police stations.

They don’t include apartment buildings, warehouses, most manufacturing plants or houses. Mr. Scott said he hoped that would happen eventually.

“It’s a political issue more than anything else,” Mr. Scott said. “Many different organizations within the building code do not want to increase the cost of a home.”

Karen Weise contributed reporting.