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In tornado-prone Oklahoma, some better prepared than others

A huge tornado approaches the town of Moore, Oklahoma, near Oklahoma City in this file photo from May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Richard Rowe/Files
A huge tornado approaches the town of Moore, Oklahoma, near Oklahoma City in this file photo from May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Richard Rowe/Files

By Heide Brandes

MOORE, Oklahoma (Reuters) - The mayor of Moore, Oklahoma, a municipality twice devastated by tornados in the past 15 years, is fixated on garage doors, knowing they are a key to protecting the city from even more damage during this year's tornado season.

Moore, in the heart of "Tornado Alley," where twisters frequently hit, will be operating this year under new building codes, arguably some of the most stringent in the nation, to protect people and structures from deadly winds.

In all new construction starting this month, garage doors must be insulated and storm resistant, roofs must have sheathing

to keep them in place, and structures must be better anchored and secured around their edges.

"Garage doors are the first to come off during a tornado. Once the garage door comes off, the roof comes off," Mayor Glenn Lewis said in an interview last week.

Many building met the new codes even before they took effect, because many people know just how high the stakes are when it comes to twister, with an average of 50 hitting Oklahoma each year during its March to August tornado season.

In May 2013, twenty-four people were killed and 240 injured when a top-rated tornado devastated Moore, a city of about 55,000 south of Oklahoma City. Some 2,400 buildings were damaged or destroyed, including Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were killed.

It was even worse in 1999 when one of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded, with wind speeds of 300 mph, struck Moore, killing 44 and leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

"The new building codes are great, but I wish they were approved sooner," said Lewis, who was mayor when both tornadoes hit.

While many building codes require structures be able to withstand a 90-mile-per-hour wind for 30 seconds, Moore's new standards, approved by the town council this year, mandate that homes withstand a 135 mph wind - still not foolproof protection but better than was in place before.

PAYING FOR PROTECTION

Moore, Oklahoma City and other cities began operating this year under building codes offering more protection, but inadequate structures and a dearth of shelters persist in large parts of the state.

One hold-up appears to be in the state legislature, where lawmakers have been bickering over funding tornado protection.

One Democratic lawmaker proposed using funds from the state's franchise tax, a levy suspended in 2011, to pay for tornado and storm shelters for the majority of schools in the state without them. Republican lawmakers, who dominate the legislature, have balked at the proposal, saying they want to eliminate the tax altogether.

The annual franchise tax calls for corporations that do business in the state to be taxed $1.25 for each $1,000 of capital invested or used in Oklahoma, according to the state's tax commission.

Lawmakers are looking at a joint resolution that would allow cities and towns to have local elections to see if they want to issue bonds to build tornado shelters and strengthen buildings.

A pair of Oklahoma legislators say businesses, schools and churches that open their doors to citizens during severe weather should not be held liable if people are hurt or killed. The proposal is in response to a lawsuit filed by relatives of those killed after taking shelter in a convenience store in the 2013 tornado.

"The most important part of this legislation is saving lives. You shouldn't worry about being sued by trying to save lives," said state Representative Larry Glenn, one of the lawmakers proposing the measure.

Back in Moore, the city is still picking up the pieces from last year's tornado.

"What are you going to do?" said Mayor Lewis. "You just rebuild stronger and better."

(Reporting by Heide Brandes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Steve Orlofsky)

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