Cellar, shmellar

Not an unreasonable question: “Why aren’t there more storm cellars in Oklahoma?” Megan Garber explains to Atlantic readers something I’ve explained before in less detail:

The ground in central Oklahoma tends to be soft and moist — right down to the bedrock that sits, generally, some 20 to 100 feet below the surface.

Here’s the problem with that when it comes to building basements and underground shelters: Clay is particularly fickle as a foundation for construction. When loamy soils absorb rainwater, they expand. And when the weather’s dry, they contract. This inevitable and yet largely unpredictable variability makes basement-building a particular challenge, since it makes it nearly impossible to establish firm foundations for underground construction.

And while above-ground homes can be built on these somewhat shaky foundations, adding the element of open space in the form of a basement is a nearly impossible feat of engineering. There is a chance your house, its basement surrounded by glorified mud, will eventually simply topple into itself.

One of the houses I looked at before buying this one was about to slide off a hill, possibly for exactly that reason. Same price as mine, for half again the space — for a while, anyway.

But why not…? This is why not:

To mitigate this, contractors have been experimenting with steel reinforcements for basements, bolstering underground walls with steel beams that are drilled directly into the bedrock below. The problem here, though, is that much of Oklahoma’s bedrock is composed of limestone, which, just like the soil above it, absorbs water. And which, when it’s sapped of moisture, becomes chalky.

About the only thing Garber gets wrong in the whole article, in fact, is her placement of Moore in Oklahoma County. It is, of course, in Cleveland County, as is the section of Oklahoma City that was hit before the storm reached Moore.



  1. Teresa »

    22 May 2013 · 8:58 pm

    There are many places where basements don’t work because the ground doesn’t allow it. Over on fb I posted that someone should offer an X prize to architecture students to see if they can come up with some ingenious idea for making new structures safer from tornados at a doable price point. You never know what someone will have in mind that hasn’t been thought of before. ;)

  2. CGHill »

    22 May 2013 · 9:11 pm

    It would surely be worth the effort. Considering the enormous cost of insuring a house in this burg now, there’s almost certainly going to be some quick ROI.

  3. McGehee »

    23 May 2013 · 9:04 am

    I used to wonder why people in tornado country seem to prefer to put their storm shelters out away from the house. The fact that house debris can trap people in an under-house cellar made sense, but so does this — as I assume a compact, concrete-sided underground pit with a slab overtop would be less problematic if built away from the house.

    But smallish urban lots, or non-urban lots just big enough for house and septic system, wouldn’t necessarily have that option.

  4. Laura »

    23 May 2013 · 9:56 am

    Westboro Baptist Church says God hates Oklahoma.

  5. CGHill »

    23 May 2013 · 10:08 am

    God says Westboro Baptist Church sexually abuses farm animals.

  6. Roger Green »

    23 May 2013 · 11:01 am

    One of the early national news stories said that Moore was SW of OKC but placed it SE of OKC on its map…

  7. CGHill »

    23 May 2013 · 1:12 pm

    It’s tricky. Santa Fe Avenue, which is the dividing line between east and west OKC, is (mostly) the western border of Moore. (A few blocks slop over.) But Moore is basically surrounded on three sides by OKC, and on the fourth by Norman.

    Most of the time, I’m happy if they get a location within about two counties of where it’s supposed to be.

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    23 May 2013 · 1:31 pm

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