Why Oklahomans don't have basements

Seriously now. Why don’t people in central Oklahoma have basements to protect them from tornadoes? The answer, according to the engineers and geologists I spoke with for a column at Ensia magazine, is almost entirely cultural. In fact, people who study disasters say that all natural disasters are really cultural ones — created when environmental… READ THE REST

I heard on NPR recently that Oklahomans actually perceive houses with basements as cheap and undesirable. I haven’t read your piece yet, but I just found that extremely strange. Where I’m from a lack of a basement is a definite minus – all that wasted “space”. When I heard they didn’t have basements I figured at first it was something about the water table or flooding or something.


Also on NPR, I heard that another reason that basements aren’t built is that foundations of houses don’t have to go down as deep into the ground as they do here in Minnesota because the frost line isn’t as deep in the ground down there. They went on to explain that since foundations have to be dug so deep, that the additional cost of digging a basement isn’t a significant extra cost to building a house, whereas you would have to do a lot of additional digging below the foundation level in Oklahoma adding quite a lot to the total price of the house. Were I in the position to build a house in Oklahoma, there is no way I wouldn’t build a basement. But perhaps, on top of cost, the cultural reasoning is just one other reason why they’re not built.


Bizarre. I understand that since I’m from a different cultural sphere it’s all about perspective, but why wouldn’t you want a basement? Why would you deliberately want less space? I understand that it would be more expensive to build house with a basement, but that doesn’t explain why it would be seen as a detriment to have one. Culture can be really weird.


Basements can be 50% of the cost of a house, yet are used less than 10% of the time (on average). They are prone to flooding in many areas. I’d rather do without in my area, since our disasters are minimal here (central BC, Canada).

Oklahoman here. I live in an apartment which, obviously, isn’t really related to the comment. But when you start doing pricing numbers for houses and then consider the actual risk of a tornado, consider this. If you live in Oklahoma, you’ve seen dozens of tornadoes, that being said, you’ve seen dozens of tornadoes not actually do much damage. You’ve seen dozens of tornadoes, not hit towns, not hit trailers, not hit anything other than trees. You’ve seen FE3s and FE4s touch down and maybe kill one or two people in the hinterlands of the cities. I don’t say this to suggest that those people’s lives don’t matter, but when you weigh an everyday concern versus the logic of going through the costs of installing a basement (and it can get a bit expensive) one is inclined to put it off. Coupled with tornadoes we live in an area that is socio-economically disadvantaged, a lot of people are weighing an extreme (to them) cost versus the relatively low odds of actually being hit by a tornado.


Also, we have crazy flooding during storms, that doesn’t help anything.


I would think it would be the cost of furnishing all that extra space, especially in an economically depressed section of the country.

Speaking of furnishing, “In the case of Oklahomans and their nonexistent basements, that means most people would choose to spend a few thousand dollars on granite countertops that will definitely improve the value of their home, rather than invest the money in a basement that could save them from a tornado that may or may not ever come.”

Granite countertops are the wooden (rec room) paneling of the future. That’s going to be some difficult stuff to deal with at the landfill unless they figure out a way to recycle it.

As an actual Oklahoman (with a basement), may I respond. The article hit the nail on the head. We are not require to dig 8 feet to get below a frost line and tornadoes affect a very few people, so it’s an extra large expense not many people want to pay for. Many more folks opt for the above ground safe room, but in a truly big tornado, those may not be safe either.

I find it interesting that everyone is shaking their head at Oklahoma, yet Colorado lost more than 360 homes in a forest fire. But I don’t see anyone on the national scene asking why people are building in the forest pocket and where were the proper safe guards and firebreaks were around those houses. Lord knows, my state has problems. But it feels like so much of the “why aren’t there basements” end in “dumb Okies.”


I wouldn’t get so bent out of shape. A lot of the conversation has been about the lack of suitable defensible shelters in public schools. That is a legitimate problem. At the high school I teach at, we have old fallout shelters that have been remodeled to double as storm shelters. That being said, over the last two tornado incidents we took shelter in a different room as opposed to that shelter. These types of things outlay genuine problems with tornado response protocols, and it’s fair for the public to ask about it. Asking why individual consumers don’t do something when they generally don’t live here and don’t know the cost of living is, as you’ve suggested, unfair.


You don’t protect those people, as that would be a nanny state interference they wouldn’t want. You also don’t provide FEMA services for the same reason. Let the market decide.

Besides, tornadoes will just hit the nearest trailer park, anyway, so why build something with a basement?


Seem as though building public neighborhood tornado shelters would be wise as well as a good way to put people to work. But you know…political will…ideology…

Funny, because most houses have basements around here in my bit of The Great Lakes, but they almost always get flooded at least once a year. Sometimes really badly…

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Basements are seen as cheap? Weird. You have to dig a hole and build a foundation with walls sturdy enough to support the house above.

In the middle third of the country (not too far north or south) I see basements as signs of quality. You’re far more likely to find a flimsy house on a poured slab than on a proper basement.


If it weren’t for the clothes washer and dryer, my mom would never set foot in the basement. Somebody could move in down there, and she’d never notice.


Yes. If you are referring to public shelters and those in schools, we are totally jacked about that. But as you point out, even that becomes quickly a much more complicated question.

I know a lot of people that cherish their basements, beyond providing the typical place for the washer and dryer they are: wood/electric work spaces, recording studios, band rehearsal spaces, living spaces, ad hoc gyms and so on. Definitely a plus.


What I don’t understand when watching the reports of the annual US tornado catastrophe on TV: Why are all those houses build out of wood and plaster? Here where I live (Central Europe) houses are built out of bricks and/or concrete. Why do you built houses, especially those in a tornado risk zone, out of such light materials? It’s a disaster waiting to happen and even when not living in a tornado alley you have all sorts of other problems: mould, termites etc.

Too many reasons and variables to name, from cost, population density, historical factors, sprawl, regulations, and so on. This part of the country is much emptier and not as historically settled as Europe or many parts of the U.S. for that matter.

But where do they keep their boxes full of stuff that they haven’t opened since the last move?


Tell me about it - where we live, you basically cannot have a house that’s inhabitable in WInter without a gas furnace in it. And we build out of wood…