Experts challenge Home Depot design, codes after Joplin tornado

JOPLIN, Mo. — As the monster tornado bore down on them, Rusty Howard and his two small children sought refuge in a Home Depot store.

But instead the young father, the children and four other people died when the roof came off and the walls came down, crushing them beneath a 100,000-pound concrete panel.

Within seconds the entire structure collapsed in a heap of concrete slabs, metal trusses and roofing. At least 28 other people survived, huddled in an un-reinforced training room in the back of the building.

Rescue workers found Howard with an arm wrapped around each child.

There aren’t many safe havens in such ferocious, 200-mph winds. Most building codes in “tornado alley” require that commercial structures withstand only 90-mph winds, slower than many major league pitchers’ fastballs.

But while all big-box stores are vulnerable to high winds, the Joplin Home Depot — even though it met local building codes — was especially at risk, according to engineers who study the destruction that tornadoes leave behind.

The Joplin Home Depot and many of the company’s other stores used a popular construction method called “tilt-up wall” that The Kansas City Star found can be deadly under certain conditions.

It’s a design used in thousands of warehouses, stores and schools across the country that some engineers believe has weak links that often fail — even in winds much less ferocious than those that hit Joplin on May 22.

Indeed, some engineers interviewed by The Star said building codes for big-box stores need to be strengthened, or the stores should have internal storm shelters when they're built.

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