Workers at dozens of Metro East warehouses have no safe rooms to shelter from tornadoes
EDWARDSVILLE — The atmospheric conditions across the St. Louis region were particularly favorable for tornadoes on an unseasonably warm December day before one slammed into an Amazon warehouse.
The National Weather Service had issued a tornado watch for the most populous parts of the region by late afternoon, and areas of that watch upgraded to a warning shortly after 8 p.m.
The Weather Service warnings urge people to immediately “take cover” and “move to a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building.”
But that wasn’t entirely possible for the 46 workers at the Amazon facility when an EF-3 tornado, with wind speeds between 136 and 165 mph, bore down on the building. Six people died when portions of the 1.1 million-square-foot facility buckled under the force of the storm.
The loss of life that night has left some wondering how such deaths could be prevented in the future.
Lack of regulations
There aren’t local or statewide rules ensuring workers in that building, when it’s rebuilt, or those in the surrounding warehouses will be any safer the next time a major storm strikes.
It wouldn’t cost much for developers to add one or multiple storm shelters to these buildings to protect the lives of workers inside.
Amazon officials have repeatedly said that the facility met all local building codes and that workers inside correctly followed safety procedures to shelter away from windows in the north and south sides of the building.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the collapse, including whether Amazon followed safety rules.
“I want to be clear, it’s not a safe room,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel at a press conference after the collapse. “Generally speaking, it's an area where there are no windows, so that it's a safer space to be in the building.”
That distinction is critical, said Jim Bell, director of operations at the National Storm Shelter Association.
A “refuge” or “take shelter location,” like the ones Amazon workers went to, are not the same thing as a designated tornado shelter, he explained.
“They’re not built to save lives,” Bell said. “They’re just the safest place you can be within a building that’s not built as a shelter.”
A common issue
The Amazon warehouse is far from the only one in the St. Louis region without an official storm shelter.
None of the nearly 30 large warehouses in the Gateway Commerce Enterprise Zone, where the Amazon facility is located, have any kind of storm shelter, said officials from Edwardsville and Pontoon Beach.
And that location only represents a portion of the overall warehousing space in the St. Louis region, which continues to grow.
Since 2017, nearly 20 million square feet of warehousing space has been built, with the Metro East accounting for about 6.5 million, according to data from commercial real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle.
“A lot of developers are looking outside of traditional markets, like Chicago,” said Joshua Allen, a senior research analyst for Jones Lang LaSalle. “St. Louis is within 500 miles of a pretty large portion of the population of the United States. There’s a large appetite by users to take this space.”
The average cost of a warehouse building alone between 2014 and 2019 in Edwardsville was more than $16 million, according to building permits obtained from the city. Constructing a storm shelter in one of these facilities adds at most 2% to that overall total, Bell said.
“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 include this type of space in a building, such as restrooms or meeting rooms with their 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.”
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.
There are examples in Illinois where storm shelters in large industrial facilities saved lives.
In July 2004, a tornado with wind speeds over 200 mph hit a manufacturing plant in Roanoke. All 150 workers there escaped that storm without injury because the building had storm shelters, something the owner decided to include because the factory had been hit by a tornado 30 years earlier.
Despite their relatively low cost and positive track record, Illinois only has statewide provisions that require storm shelters in new school buildings, which took effect in 2015.
There are no statewide requirements that existing warehouses, like those in Edwardsville, Pontoon Beach or elsewhere, have storm shelters or that future ones be built safer.
“We should be looking at whether we should be creating statewide standards,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said recently. “We don’t have that right now. They’re really done at a county by county or municipality basis.”
In the Metro East alone, there is a wide range of standards. Some municipalities, like Edwardsville, still use the 2006 International Building Code, while others use codes from 2018 or “the most currently published edition” of the International Building Code.
But a more modern building standard might not be enough to protect against future tornadoes, said Ron Hamburger, a structural engineer and chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers committee that develops and recommends load standards for building codes.
“U.S. building codes in general have not had any criteria for design for tornado resistance,” he said. “Much like many other hazards that we face, the building codes have viewed tornadoes as being acts of God that there was really not much you could do about.”
The 2011 tornado that decimated Joplin and killed 158 people has changed that attitude in engineering communities, Hamburger said.
There is now a proposal to include standards in the 2024 International Building Code that would require buildings to be tornado resistant.
“It doesn’t protect buildings against any tornado that could occur,” Hamburger said. “It does require some basic minimal wind resistance in the structure for tornadic winds.”
Edwardsville’s director of public works, Eric Williams, said the city is considering moving to the 2021 code, but 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.”
For his part, Hamburger said he prefers states with a single building standard and supports the prospect in Illinois.
“It makes it easier for my life as a design professional to understand what it is I am legally required to design,” he said. “If every town within a state has different rules, it’s confusing to me.”
Pritzker said he expects state Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, to be the one to advance legislation. Stuart has filed a bill that would create a task force to make it easier for workers to identify and report safety concerns or violations where they work.
Stuart was part of a hearing on potential legislation Monday responding to the December tornado and subsequent building collapse. She said lawmakers would evaluate and file any appropriate legislation.
“We can’t stop tornadoes,” Stuart said. “But hopefully we can do what we can to stop loss of life. If we can prevent anything like this in the future, that’s what we can do.”
Pritzker said the increasing frequency of severe storms is a key factor in the need to consider changing building codes.
“With climate change, we have seen so many of these disasters increasing in numbers in shortened periods of time,” Pritzker said.
It’s difficult to attribute a single storm to climate change, but researchers have documented a growing frequency of intense tornadoes in Midwestern and Southern states, including Missouri and Illinois.
“The regions that we’re seeing increases in these events are also co-located with areas that are already extremely vulnerable to tornado events,” said Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University who studies the kinds of storms that produce tornadoes.
Standards requiring storm shelters in industrial buildings, like warehouses and manufacturing facilities, in Illinois and other states could prevent deaths, Gensini said.
“It’s a matter of having the will to build smarter and safer,” he said.
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.