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Even in tornado-prone areas, storm shelters aren't required in warehouses


Tornadoes are more deadly than other extreme weather, and most people are killed when they are indoors. After last December's deadly tornadoes in the Midwest and South, people are worried about the safety of workers in large warehouses the next time one strikes. From St. Louis Public Radio, Eric Schmitt reports.

ERIC SCHMITT, BYLINE: Arnetra Rhodes tries not to let herself think about the day last December when six people died at an Amazon warehouse only about 20 miles from the one she works at in Hazelwood, Mo. Rhodes says she can't work if she focuses too hard on what happened in Edwardsville, Ill.

ARNETRA RHODES: Everybody's mental health is different. I just have to push certain things past me because money is money. And at the end of the day, you got to get money so we can survive.

SCHMITT: Rhodes is one of many workers in industrial buildings across increasingly tornado-prone areas in the Midwest and South. Many of those facilities are just like the one in Edwardsville, which didn't have a tornado shelter, just a refuge area away from windows. Jim Bell directs operations for the National Storm Shelter Association and says that difference is critical.

JIM BELL: They're not built to save lives. They're just the safest place you can be within a building that's not built as a shelter.

SCHMITT: Bell says an official storm shelter isn't that difficult to include in designs. It can be as simple as reinforcing a room or a corridor within the warehouse.

BELL: And that 1% of the time that you really need it to be a shelter that's built to withstand the 250 mile an hour winds and 100 mile an hour impacts - we test these things, too.

SCHMITT: He says it's not that expensive, either. Building a storm shelter can cost between 20,000 to a few hundred thousand dollars. To put that in perspective, a new warehouse can cost upwards of $20 million. Arnetra Rhodes says she and others sometimes feel unsafe at their warehouse now.

RHODES: Just like how they make the break room look good, they could at least make a shelter room that's good, that's supportive enough for everybody. And they can do that. They just won't.

SCHMITT: Amazon officials say their facilities meet local building codes. Randy Korgan is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' national director for Amazon. The union also represents many in the logistics industry, like delivery drivers and workers in distribution facilities. Korgan says tornado shelters are just the latest example in a long list of safety issues at warehouses. He adds following building codes is just the bare minimum.

RANDY KORGAN: Employers don't have a tendency to do this on their own. They just don't really take into consideration at the right level health and safety of the workforce until they're forced to.

SCHMITT: Most local building codes don't require storm shelters in new or existing warehouses, and there's no national standard. They're mostly piecemeal from one town to the next. Structural engineer Ron Hamburger says that makes it challenging.

RON HAMBURGER: If every town within a state has different rules, it's confusing to me.

SCHMITT: Hamburger supports the prospect of statewide rules, which Illinois lawmakers are considering in light of the Edwardsville warehouse collapse. But he's concerned that a national standard might not be all that useful.

HAMBURGER: You don't have hurricanes coming through St. Louis, so why design for hurricanes, right? In the same way, Florida doesn't have blizzards, so why design for blizzards?

SCHMITT: Ron Hamburger says if conditions within a single region are relatively consistent, increasing safety protocols there might help accommodate a changing climate, which is sparking more tornadoes in the Midwest and South than ever before.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Schmitt in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND TRIBE SECTOR 9'S "TOKYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East area in Illinois for St. Louis Public Radio. He joins the news team as its first Report for America corps member and is tasked with expanding KWMU's coverage east from the Mississippi. Before joining St. Louis Public Radio, Eric held competitive internships at Fox News Channel, NPR-affiliate WSHU Public Radio and AccuWeather. As a news fellow at WSHU's Long Island Bureau, he covered governments and environmental issues as well as other general assignments. Eric grew up in Northern Colorado but attended Stony Brook University, in New York where he earned his degree in journalism in 2018. He is an expert skier, avid reader and lifelong musician-he plays saxophone and clarinet.