Balance Between Safety and Costs Considered as Midwest Again Hammered by Tornados

More than 80 tornados ravaged the Midwest on a storm-filled Sunday, leaving six dead and hundreds of destroyed homes in its wake to likely refuel the debate over the balance between safety in homes within the tornado-prone region and escalating costs.

It marked the second high-profile incident of wind-related devastation, following the havoc left in the Philippines the week before by Typhoon Haiyan. Laminated glass might have helped lessen the damage in both cases, but even that’s unlikely given the vast amount of wind-borne debris in both incidents, experts say.

Tyler Mallard, the project manager for Architectural Wall Systems, the Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that designed the hardened windows of the new Joplin, Mo., hospital whose windows are built to withstand tornado winds of up to 250 miles per hour (mph), didn’t sound all that optimistic about a similar residential solution anytime soon.

A slew of major structural changes to every home would have to be in place first before any such remedy could be attempted. The price tag would be a steep one.

“It’s possible,” Mallard says, “but I just don’t know from a construction standpoint if it would be feasible.”

But it’s unlikely any residents of the Midwest would mind some added costs after enduring Sunday’s horror. The small town of Washington, Ill., was the hardest hit area as a powerful EF-4 tornado packing winds of 170 to 190 mph cut a wide swath of destruction that stretched more than three miles, according to a preliminary survey taken by the National Weather Service. The storm, which struck at 11 a.m. local time, resulted in one death and injuries to nearly 80 people, according to media reports.

“The devastation is just unbelievable,” Mayor Gary Manier told the Chicago Tribune, estimating as many as 500 homes may have been damaged in his town. “I can’t imagine people walked away from these places.”

Two people died in Nashville, Ill. – about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis – when a tornado with estimated peak winds of 166 mph struck. Closer to Chicago, in Grundy County, an EF-2 tornado touched down in the Coal City area near Joliet with wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph, according to the National Weather Service, damaging hundreds of homes.

The victims appeared to have little warning and it’s unclear how many of them had basements to which they might have scurried for cover. More than 300, 000 people across the state remain without power as of Monday morning, while Governor Patrick Quinn has declared seven counties as disaster areas.

While extensive, the carnage is nothing like that to befall the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan killed thousands and left millions more without shelter.

Added security from Mother Nature’s wrath is possible, but it would come at a hefty price.

Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo., had been formerly known as St. John’s Regional Medical Center before a powerful E5 tornado ravaged the town on May 22, 2011, killing 158 people and wounding 1,150 others. The city of Joplin spent nearly $11 million in upgrading the facility to make sure a tragedy of that scale hopefully never happened again.

The building was vetted by shooting the windows with 15-pound, 2-by-4 wooden missiles at 100 mph to duplicate how fast debris typically flies during a 250-mph tornado.

But Rick De La Guardia, the president and founder of DLG Engineering, however, cautions that it is the pressure applied to glass rather than the wind speed that is the most critical factor.

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