Illinois lawmakers push for storm shelters in warehouses after deadly tornado

Illinois lawmakers push for storm shelters in warehouses after deadly tornado


EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — There’s a new call from Illinois lawmakers to make buildings safer after a tornado killed six workers at an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville on Dec. 10.

Amazon still plans to be back in business at the site once the warehouse is rebuilt, according to a company spokeswoman. 

There’s no word on when that might be and no word on whether that rebuilt warehouse would include a “true” storm shelter that would have withstood the tornado.  It could include one, and in the grand scheme of things, it would not cost all that much.  

National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) tests show a 2×4 piece of lumber traveling at 100 miles an hour completely demolishing a standard door.  The same tests using a reinforced storm shelter door show impact damage to the door, but the door remains structurally intact. The difference can be life-saving. Yet, in the “city” of warehouses surrounding the Amazon building in Edwardsville, which have no basements because of a high underground water table, there is no requirement for “tornado-ready” storm shelters.   

“They use their restrooms or interior offices that they deemed as ‘refuge areas’ (as storm shelters),” said NSSA director Jim Bell.  “They’re not tornado shelters.  They won’t protect you.” 

Illinois Governor, J.B. Pritzker, asked about storm shelters and basements when he toured the site on Dec. 13.  He said building codes needed to be reviewed and possibly updated to keep up with a changing climate that dished out a deadly  EF-3 tornado with 155 mph wind speeds at a time when snow used to be more likely.   

Illinois State Reps. Katie Stuart and Jay Hoffman, who represent the area and toured the site with the governor, are now pushing for change.  The Amazon building is in Stuart’s district.   

Hoffman and Stuart are members of the House Labor and Committee.  

Both attended an online hearing on the issue of warehouse storm safety this week. Stuart read a letter from Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford to the committee.   

“This tornado highlights the need to review and likely change building requirements for large warehouses,” Whiteford wrote.   

Experts representing the warehouse industry, labor unions, the NSSA, and even the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, joined the hearing.  They talked about adopting the International Code Council’s  “ICC 500” code to require storm shelters for so-called “tilt-up” buildings where precast 40-foot tall concrete walls are tilted up from the ground and secured to a roof.  No one doubted the quality of their construction.   

“Tilt-up buildings or precast structures, generally speaking, are not designed to withstand tornados — but that’s not on the union guys who built the buildings,” said Randy Harris, director of the Midwest Region of the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust (LECET).  “Hopefully, we can figure some things out and protect workers in these sites as we move forward and make sure everyone goes to work and gets home safe.” 

Bell told the committee the warehouses were only built to withstand 90 mph winds. He said shelters built to the ICC-500 code have never failed in tests or real-life events, even in the face of the most catastrophic, EF-5, tornados.  They can be built for a fraction of overall construction costs, Bell said.

“Generally, when you build a new building, the area you’re going to harden to make it into a safe room costs about 30% more for that section,” he said.   

According to the NSSA, costs range from $10,000to $80,000 depending on the number of people they would need to protect in an emergency.  That would add far less than 1% to the cost of a typical $25 million to $50 million warehouse.   

At the end of the hearing, Stuart addressed the loved ones of the six who died, saying, “We just want you to know our thoughts are always with you as you’re dealing with this.  We can’t stop tornados, but hopefully, we can do what we can to stop loss of life and protect people.”   

“We can’t do nothing,” she later told FOX 2 News.  “We have to do something.  We can’t have another tragedy like this.”   

“The question here is can you develop a statewide policy that makes everyone safer and learn from this terrible, terrible tragedy? What I hear is that there weren’t really enough areas or spaces that were truly safe for the workers to go (in the Amazon warehouse),” Hoffman said.

The warehouse industry has tripled across the St. Louis region in recent years, according to economists. So, Missouri faces the same issue, Hoffman said.  


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