Still reeling from the EF5 tornado that struck Moore, Okla., on May 20, the residents of Oklahoma City awoke today to survey the damage from a second round of violent storms that left five people dead and injured dozens more.
Add that to the trail of devastation left by the May 20 super-tornado, which packed winds upwards of 200 miles an hour as it tore through Moore. The twister cut a 17-mile path of destruction, destroyed or damaged upward of 12,000 homes, and leveled two elementary schools. At least two dozen people were killed, including 10 children.
Perhaps the most startling statistic about the Moore tornado, though, is this: Neither of the elementary schools in question, nor many of the homes destroyed, had basements, nor any reinforced above-ground shelters to protect the people inside -- this despite the fact that the recent storm followed almost in the path of a 1999 tornado that struck the town.
It's actually not surprising that safe rooms were hardly to be found in Moore: According to the Associated Press, not a single state in the Union currently mandates the building of safe rooms in residential construction.
But why don't people build these things voluntarily? Well, look at it from the perspective that most affects you, the homeowner. According to the National Weather Service, tornadoes inflicted 45 fatalities in the U.S. in 2010. According to the CDC, 2,468,435 Americans died that year. That works out to about a 1-in-55,000 chance of dying in a tornado. In contrast, the National Safety Council says the odds of dying by slipping and breaking your neck in your bathtub are five times greater: 1 in 11,000.
Worth noting though: As with everything else in real estate, it's "location, location, location." According to the site AskTheOdds.com, Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory calculated that "someone living in Norman, Oklahoma, in the heart of tornado alley, has a 1 in 7,000 chance of being fatally injured as a result of a tornado."
Of course, the cost of buying some sticky pads for your tub to cut the risk of a slip is a whole lot less than anything you could do to reduce your risk of dying due to a twister.
The High Cost of Safety
According to Beazer Homes (BZH), the average cost of outfitting a medium-size house with a full unfinished basement can easily exceed $30,000. On a $270,000 house, that's more than 10 percent of the construction cost. (A partial basement doesn't cost much less, reducing total construction cost by just $3,000.)
Not to mention hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a sump pump to guard against flooding and a backup battery or permanent generator to run it in the event of a power outage.
In short, when most people weigh the costs and benefits of putting in a basement in areas where they aren't standard, versus the 1-in-55,000 likelihood that they'll ever actually need it for survival, the costs win the argument ... and no basement gets built.
A Lower-Budget Safety Option
There is a cheaper solution.
Responding to the unmet need for affordable tornado safety, some construction companies offer a product called a "safe room," or sometimes, a "safe storm shelter." Don't confuse these with Jodie Foster's luxurious, high-tech hideout from "Panic Room." A safe room is simply a reinforced-concrete or all-steel shelter that can be installed inside a house's garage and bolted to the concrete pad.
These safe rooms don't cost much more than a decent used car -- under $5,000 for a larger model capable of protecting a family of five. They're quite spartan. But for a family on a budget, they offer an affordable option for staying safe from the storm.
Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith actually does have a basement ... and a sump pump ... and a backup battery system. And he fully intends to get around to replacing those batteries someday.