Xenia, OH -- As the residents of Xenia prepare to mark the one-month anniversary of an F-4 tornado that tore through the community on September 20, federal and state disaster officials hope people in the area will remember one thing - to repair or rebuild safer and better, including considering a safe room or wind-resistant construction techniques.
Xenia's tornado history is well documented with a list of four major tornadoes in the past 80 years, including a destructive F-5 storm in April 1974 that killed 33 people and caused millions of dollars of damage. But part of that documentation, a single photo, has led to extensive "safe room" research that is a major part of Project Impact: Building A Disaster Resistant Community, a national initiative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
During a recent visit to Xenia, Dr. Ernst Kiesling, a professor at Texas Tech University and one of the nation's leading experts on safe rooms and wind-resistant construction, described the photo of a bathroom left standing in the middle of the massive devastation following the 1974 tornado. It's roof and door were gone, but the walls remained standing. He could not look at the photo without asking the obvious question, "Why?"
"Viewing that picture, inspired the shelter concept," Kiesling told a crowd of disaster assistance applicants, local contractors, and city officials as he stood before the photo's image projected on a large screen.
A "safe room" is essentially a roomy closet or storage area built to withstand extreme wind hazards such as tornadoes. A safe room can be constructed either above or below ground with either reinforced concrete or wood-and-steel walls anchored to a concrete slab foundation or floor. Safe room designs draw on 25 years of field research, as well as laboratory testing.
SAFE ROOMS SAVE LIVES
One local secretary says that she owes her safety to a storm shelter built in the law office building where she works, which opened just a month before the September 20 tornado hit. The new building stood strong, while the one next door was practically leveled.
"I'm really convinced that, even if our building had been destroyed, I would have come out fine," Donna Thomas, who works for the Peterson and Peterson law firm exclaimed. "This building is really strong, and our builder is the one who convinced us to put in the storm shelter room. It was great when we needed it and doubles as a storage room for client's files."
Her boss, Marshall Peterson, was in a downtown building in the middle of Xenia when the 'Big One' hit in 1974. "We grabbed the floor for dear life, while buildings went down all around us," he said. "It was unbelievable and sure convinced me that we needed more protection."
When it comes to safe rooms, Peterson says people think they'll never need one. "But in a storm like the one last month, you would be awfully glad you had it," he said.
Record setting tornadoes are nothing new to Ohio. Of the 51 F-5 tornadoes recorded in the U.S. since 1950, four of those were in Ohio - Niles in May 1985, Saylor Park and Xenia in April 1974 and Gallipolis in April 1968.
"Most people do not realize that two-thirds of all disaster losses are wind-related," Dr. Kiesling said. "Those losses most often are the result of severe thunderstorms, straight-line winds, tornadoes or hurricanes."
During the Xenia presentation, Dr. Kiesling discussed a variety of wind-resistant construction techniques that can help to reduce losses. These include: using inexpensive metal connectors or strapping to strengthen the connection between the "roof and walls and walls to foundation" to resist the "uplift" effect of strong winds; reinforcing or replacing garage and double entry doors; and, removing trees and yard materials that could become wind borne missiles.