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Many Metro East warehouses don’t have tornado shelters despite a low price tag

Workers attempt to clear debris of a collapsed warehouse as part of a search and rescue operation at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville on Dec. 11, 2021. The building didn't have a separate storm shelter like many others in the Metro East.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Workers attempt to clear debris from a collapsed warehouse at an Amazon facility in Edwardsville on Dec. 11. The building didn't have a separate storm shelter, as is the case with many others in the Metro East.

EDWARDSVILLE — Many warehouses in the Metro East don’t have tornado shelters or rooms that are designed to withstand extreme weather, despite the low overall cost.

Building permits show the average estimated cost of a new warehouse building in Edwardsville was more than $16 million between 2014 and 2019. The cost of a shelter adds at most 2% to that overall total, said Jim Bell, director of operations for the National Storm Shelter Association.

“If you’re talking about putting some structures inside of your building so that your people will be safe, depending on how big you can go $20,000 to $30,000 up to a couple hundred thousand,” he said. “It’s not an astronomical price.”

There are many ways to add this type of space into a building, such as including a restroom or meeting room with its own reinforced walls and roof, Bell said.

“It can be any size. I’ve seen them where they incorporate them into a corridor,” he said. “That 1% of the time that you really need it to be a shelter, it’s built to withstand the 250 mile-an-hour winds and 100 mile-an-hour impacts that we test these things to.”

That’s harsher than the EF-3 tornado that struck an Amazon warehouse in December, killing six people.

Officials from the company said workers sheltered away from windows in an interior part of the building, but it wasn’t a separate “safe room.” The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is investigating the collapse.

Edwardsville and Pontoon Beach city officials said they have no knowledge of any formal tornado shelters in the more than two dozen warehouses built in the Gateway Commerce Enterprise Zone where the Amazon warehouse is located.

Pontoon Beach and Edwardsville both have building codes from before an EF-5 tornado hit Joplin in 2011 and don’t require storm shelters for warehouses. Edwardsville is currently considering updating its building codes, said Eric Williams, the city’s director of public works.

He didn’t say if the city was considering additional specific rules for tornado shelters in warehouses.

“Nothing has been ruled out,” Williams said. “We haven’t specifically got into that set of standards at that time.”

Edwardsville Mayor Art Risavy added that the warehouse collapse in December is an opportunity to make warehouses in the city safer.

“That’s on the minds not only of the city but also on Amazon and the owners of the building,” he said. “I think it’s something being reviewed by all parties involved.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and International Code Council each have their own design recommendations and requirements to provide refuge from storms that produce high winds, hurricanes and tornadoes.

FEMA’s requirements are more conservative than the code council’s and are designed to provide a “very high probability of being protected from injury or death.” The agency hasn’t recorded any deaths of people using a “safe room” that meets FEMA’s design guidelines.

Retrofitting an existing warehouse with a storm shelter is more difficult than incorporating one into the building process, Bell said.

“It would be under $1 million if you’re not going to build a new building, you’re just talking about putting shelters in,” he said. “Depending on how big and how many you need, I would think $200,000 to $300,000.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. 

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.