It was 1811 and Amos Burdine had just moved his wife Jennie, their boys and newborn daughter, Susannah, to Missouri. The family had settled on Dog Prairie about a third of the way up the Mississippi River toward Hannibal from St. Louis. Tensions between the U.S. and England had never been resolved. Native American Indians from the northeast had been displaced and pressured to move to the area. Wild animals and all types of scoundrels filled the woods. Danger lurked everywhere along the river.
The settlers had no reason to expect what happened during the wee hours of the morning of December 16, 1811. They would not have been surprised by a military altercation or an attack by Indians provoked by the British or even a bear trying to break into their cabin. However at around 2 a.m., as the family slept, with no warning, the New Madrid earthquake rocked the entire North American continent. Bells rang of their own accord in Boston and sidewalks cracked in Washington DC.
In St. Charles County, Missouri, near the epicenter, the boards on the roof of the Burdine cabin shook so violently that Amos feared that his family was being attacked. In fear of their lives, Amos and his sons proceeded to shoot so many holes toward the rafters that the roof leaked from that day forward. The earthquake was felt in an area nearly 200 times larger than the area that would feel the San Francisco earthquake 95 years later. By morning the country had endured 27 additional aftershocks.
Amos and Jennie were my great grandmother’s great grandparents and I can but imagine the pure terror that they experienced during that long, long night. They were absolutely helpless at the mercy of a natural disaster. Today, we are not so much. The intervening two centuries have brought much technological change and have made America a safer place. Sure, there are still earthquakes, but our structures are so much safer. Of course there are still hurricanes and tornadoes, but the national weather service is able to give us better warnings.
Across the nation are standardized building codes. States on the east coast have taken those building codes and enhanced them for hurricane resistant structures. States on the west coast have taken those building codes and enhanced them for earthquake resistant structures. Unfortunately, Oklahoma did not even have a statewide standardized building code until 2009 and the current code does not even begin to address the construction of tornado resistant housing.
Oklahoman’s, including me, have always assumed that if a house was in the path of a tornado, it was history. Assume no more. Last week, Rep. Richard Morrisette and I co-sponsored an interim study on safe housing and building codes. The study was an eye opener. Dr. Chris Ramseyer, Ph.D., P.E., Director of the Fears Structural Engineering Laboratory at the University of Oklahoma spoke about the construction of high wind resistant homes; building codes and the benefits of retrofit.
Dr. Ramseyer’s concise and informative presentation detailed the science behind a tornadic type high wind event’s impact on the integrity of structures. Of course, it is unlikely that any wood frame structures would survive a direct hit from an EF4 or EF5 tornado, however, even in a wide tornado, the EF4 or EF5 winds are often isolated to a small part of the storm.
Perhaps the most alarming information that came out of Dr. Ramseyer’s demonstration showed that the root cause of destruction of most residential structures is either substandard garage doors or inadequate rafter anchoring. The most exciting thing that came out of the study was that these two key construction components could be corrected during construction for around $1,500 and both can be the subject of relatively inexpensive retrofits.
Dr. Ramseyer showed that even if a window is broken the wind through that window will likely not be sufficient to blow the roof off in anything less than an EF4 Tornado, however, that same wind will cause severe damage and often total destruction of a residence once a garage door is breached. He also showed that when a roof is properly clipped and a wind resistant garage door is in use, a house may only sustain EF1 or EF2 damage even if it is within 70 feet or less from a house that sustains EF5 damage and has no clips and a less substantial garage door.
Make no mistake about it; the protection of human life should always be our first and foremost goal. It is very important that safe rooms and storm shelters be an essential part of everybody’s severe weather plan, however, Oklahoma’s quality of life will be substantially improved if we can decrease the amount of damage caused to structures during tornadic activity. Thus far in 2013, insurance companies in Oklahoma have paid out nearly 1.75 Billion Dollars in claims for storm damage. Those claims translate into higher premiums. The loss of a home is emotionally devastating as is the loss of irreplaceable items of personal property and photographs. It is time that we pulled our head out of the proverbial sand, upgraded our building codes, and improve the quality of life in Oklahoma.
Thank you for allowing me to serve as State Representative. If you have questions or comments about this issue or any other matter, please contact me at David.Perryman@okhouse.gov or 405-557-7401.