Read this and save lives … first

On a sunny afternoon in late May, my colleagues and I went out for our usual lunch break at the steps of the post office near our work place.  These lunch breaks allow us to talk about real world matters.  They give us some time to talk freely and honestly about why events are happening around us.

Our conversations are always about the issues we currently face as a society.  Rarely do we talk about subjects related to our office work.  This is our chance to escape away from what we do all day.  But on this rare occasion, we did talk about buildings.  We are architects after all.

Specifically, we discussed tornado-proof homes.

read this and save

One of my colleagues was prompted by the devastation a monster tornado caused when it roared through Oklahoma City suburbs recently.  Homes were destroyed along its path.  As architects, we try to find ways to make buildings resilient to this type of phenomenon.  We like buildings to stand, and stand for a long time.

One way to keep homes standing is to use clips and straps to keep the walls bolted to the roof and foundation.  Homes would have remained standing or experienced less damage by these inexpensive construction techniques.  Yet, our mindful thoughts didn’t stay too long in these lost structures.  We can always rebuild homes when they topple, get blown apart, or drift away.

In a disaster of this magnitude our thoughts turned to the safety of the families.  There was greater concern for how lives could have been spared if humans were more prepared.  Unlike homes, humans can’t be replaced.  And so inevitably, we felt the pain, suffering and loss that humans endured in this tragedy.

How do we reduce the threat on human lives from such a tornado?  If a house is retrofitted with a safe room, a family is able to be protected from an extreme storm.  We quickly identified a solution to this immediate problem.

A concrete-reinforced core designed as part of the home’s structure safeguards families from extreme storms.  The core contains a bathroom which would be used to wait out these events.  It is also installed to rise through the building’s different floor levels.  Depending on the situation (tornado or flood), families have a safe room on any level.

A safe room or underground shelter seems like a simple solution.  So how come most homes in Oklahoma, one of the states in the storm belt called Tornado Alley, do not have them?  There are two easily recognized answers to this question: expenses and construction standards.

A small, prefabricated shelter can cost $4,000.  This cost may make homes less affordable.  Assessment calculations also discourage basement building.  Assessors value basement square footage at half the rate of ground level space.  Add to that the current depressed economy and you see why most homes have not changed.

The quality of new home construction has generally remained the same throughout the years.  Few homes in Oklahoma were secured to their foundations with bolted plates since a unique storm hit in 1999.  The same kinds of nails and pins that failed back then are still used today.  Why are we humans not learning from history?

Humans have not changed their ways.  It’s difficult to change.

Our conversation took another turn when I stated that we needed to reduce our CO2 emissions to reduce climate change.  My colleague surprisingly responded that there is no connection between climate change and saving lives.  There is questionable evidence that CO2 emissions and climate change are directly linked to tornadoes.  In short, he said there is no solid proof.

While his topic of discussion was to save lives in response to tornadoes, I inserted my aim of getting at the root cause to the problems we face with extreme weather.  My approach was to bring climate change to the forefront and somehow link saving the planet to saving lives.  An argument ensued leaving us with no agreement.  This often happens at our lunches.

After our lunch, I looked into this further.  I found that the link between climate change caused by increasing CO2 emissions to tornadoes may not be as strong as I thought it would be.  There is no conclusive evidence.

Tornadoes form under a certain interaction not necessarily based on a warming environment.  This interaction is where warm, humid air collides with cooler air.  Warm air brings about strong upper winds.  Cooler air near ground level produces slower currents.  The two in combination causes wind shear.  It often occurs when warm temperatures from the south run into colder temperatures from the north.

A warming environment creates warmer temperatures in the north.  In this regard, wind shear intensity decreases which could lead to fewer tornadoes.

Yet, science claims that in a globally warmed future world, storms should be more intense.  As the temperatures increase near ground level, the air becomes more humid, and the amount of energy for storms builds up higher.

Global warming does contribute to the intensity of thunderstorms.  Thunderstorms host tornadoes through the increased warmth and moisture content of the air flow.  So we are able to potentially connect the dots there.

But, we’re not certain.

Our modern research techniques and models do not predict tornado formations with more certainty, much less link tornadoes to climate change.  We are left with much to learn…

At a following lunch break recently, I admitted that reducing CO2 emissions may not have anything to do with humans from getting hurt or dying in a tornado event.  We sometimes respond to a devastating event such as the Oklahoma tornado by attributing its cause to climate change.  This is the wrong response.

It steers us away from what matters most when a crisis happens.

We know that tornadoes happen.  We do not know when and to what magnitude they will develop in the future.  We just have to be more prepared the next time it happens in order to save lives.  While the extreme event of a tornado is unpredictable, we must control the outcome when it comes to fortifying our homes and reducing human loss.

To end our conversation, my colleague did acknowledge that we need to take precautions when it comes to global warming.  Although the weather is masked by natural variability, all events are affected by climate change.  The environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.

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