This year has been one of the deadliest years on record for natural disasters in the US. So far, more than 500 people have been killed by tornadoes, and hurricane season is just around the corner. After the devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri some officials are wondering if building code changes are in order. The Wichita Eagle recently reported that the International Building Code adopted by most cities accounts for natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, but fails to address the threat of tornadoes. Many cities have amended their codes to require homes to be able to withstand a wind gust of 90 mph, the equivalent of a weak EF1 tornado.

Fewer homes today have basements and storm shelters and, consequently, people have fewer safe places to go in the event of severe weather. With tornadoes occurring in more areas outside the Midwest, as evident in the Springfield, Massachusetts tornado, establishing safer building codes is an issue that deserves national attention.

A few ideas can be taken from towns affected in the past by large storms. After an EF3 tornado heavily damaged Moore, Oklahoma in 1999, the state established a grant program to build public safe rooms, and the city of Tulsa took great strides toward installing safe rooms in homes. After Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf States reevaluated their building codes and most of them changed the codes to require buildings to withstand stronger winds. Greensburg, Kansas, destroyed by an EF5 tornado in May of 2007, has not only become a model green city, but it now requires that all houses and public buildings have a storm shelter or safe room.

FEMA states that a properly built safe room can provide “near absolute protection” in the event of severe weather, and continues to update its guidelines for building safe rooms. A properly built safe room can withstand winds of 250 mph, the equivalent of an EF5 tornado, but comes with a high price tag. An 8’ by 8’ safe room can cost $6,500 to $8,500, and some experts feel this cost is too high to require homeowners to install safe rooms, considering the chances of the same location being struck by a tornado are once in every 5,000 years. However, homeowners in Moore, Oklahoma and Andover, Kansas can attest that, even though it is rare, tornadoes do strike the same area multiple times.

The American Architectural Manufacturers Association has taken steps to improve building codes for tornadoes by offering voluntary specifications for testing and rating the ability of windows, skylights and doors to withstand debris impacts and water penetration common with tornado strikes. Even though these ratings are not currently required, companies specializing in home building products can use the ratings as an opportunity to provide safer products for consumers.

Just as meteorologists continue to learn more about how these deadly storms develop, builders should continue to educate themselves on best practices for building secure structures. Safe rooms, storm shelters and stricter building codes may very well become the rule – and not the exception – in home building.