Domed, Not Doomed

It’s time to solve the tornado problem, once and for all

ITALY, Texas—When David South’s phone recently rang early in the morning at the Monolithic Dome Institute he founded in Italy, Texas—in an area sometimes menaced by tornados—the caller on the other end was the superintendent of the nearby Avalon, Texas school district, David Delbosque.

His small district, like Italy’s, has a Monolithic Dome for its gymnasium/multipurpose center that doubles as a year-around storm shelter for the greater community as well as truly protecting pupils when school is in session, providing unsurpassed preparedness against disaster.

But the deadly EF-5 tornado that destroyed most of Moore, Oklahoma and killed several schoolchildren was still a fresh, painful memory for the two men on the phone, as it is for the nation and especially for those in Moore. So, Delbosque used South as a sounding board about safety preparedness—right during a tense period in May 2013 when several tornadoes were erupting in north-central Texas, including near Avalon and Italy.

South, who has given this writer several tours of his Texas school-domes, related the conversation with Delbosque as follows:

“He said, ‘Well, David, do you got any advice for me?’ And I said, ‘You’ve been through one tornado. What do you think about it?’ He replied, ‘I decided not to let school out today. I know the other schools around here are turning the kids loose to go home. But there is not a school child who has a home as safe as what I have here. So I am putting the word out for the mothers and fathers to come to the school and be with their child and be safe—if those tornados move in here.’”

Yet, because human nature can be as fickle as Mother Nature, not everyone is so open to new ideas. And many school districts, lacking the kind of shelters or overall structural design needed to handle the worst possible storms, reflexively send their students home, and possibly into harm’s way, right before or during a storm. The town of Moore had experienced deadly tornados in 1999 and 2003, just like in May 2013. But it seems little had been changed in terms of pro-active protection.

The central questions are: Will the people in and around Moore get past the immediate “sting” of their tornado tragedy, in a region beset by multiple tornados in the late spring of 2013, and not just cope but, instead, re-build in a way that offers lasting, genuine protection? Will they take the lead in ushering in a new reality in construction that is not only infinitely safer but also provides for much better living in general?

South, whose domes also resist fire, hurricanes, and about anything else you could throw at them, is cautiously optimistic.

“I have nine schools in Oklahoma that are built using our [dome] technology,” South told this writer. That includes the Beggs, Oklahoma, school district, which has Monolithic Dome construction for its events center, including classrooms. Geronimo High School and Locust Grove Elementary School are two other Oklahoma districts with such domes. These domed school buildings are monumentally solid, attractive and functional, representing a new paradigm in safe-and-sound living.

“The students are as safe in those nine schools as they would be in an underground chamber somewhere. The difference is, we can build a school for less money than conventional [construction]; plus the building will be there for the next 500 years . . . . And what’s extremely interesting is it cuts the power consumption 75 percent. So at the end of 20 years, the dome facility is free because it saved that kind of money,” said South.

These Monolithic Domes (see online for more specific details) are created by first inflating a balloon-like form. Then, a special concrete mixture is sprayed onto the inner surface of the form. Re-bar (steel or a new basalt fiber) for reinforcement and an insulation layer are added, ultimately resulting in a single-piece (“monolithic”) structure of astounding strength and longevity.

Federal money is available to help consumers through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose Publication P-361 contains the specifications to create tornado-safe structures—regardless of whether those structures are domes or not. There are guidelines for door and window testing. And the minimum thickness of concrete is specified, among other things.

True, some school officials and other applicants dislike the red tape which is part of the application process. And FEMA does not have a sterling reputation with everyone, given its behavior during past disasters. Nevertheless, applying for such funding can pay off. Consider the case of the Woodsboro, Texas school district’s Monolithic Dome that is a gym/tornado and hurricane shelter.

“When he got all done, FEMA paid 75 percent of the cost of that new gym,” South added, talking about Woodsboro Superintendent Steve Self. “That was two years ago. And people are starting to pick up on it.”

South, who understands that the world may have a housing shortage of about 50 million units, has built Monolithic Domes in 53 countries and 49 U.S. states. In several of those locales, he has trained people to build them—even the Turkish government, which recently flew Mr. South into Turkey to get his guidance for constructing a huge new cultural center in Anakara.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin recently called for every school to have “a safe room,” to which South remarked: “Why not have every school with an entire classroom building or a cafeteria or a gymnasium—which is both a tornado shelter and a useful school facility?”

In 2012, the Faith Chapel (Monolithic Dome) Church complex near Birmingham, Ala., easily survived a huge tornado. Missing exterior tiles were about the extent of the dome’s damage.

“In that $52 million facility they had about a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of cosmetic damage to the exterior because the town flew into it—two-by-fours, metal and trees. They had church the next Sunday. They used it for the cleanup,” South told this writer.

World reporter Mark Anderson travels and writes on various issues in search of real solutions. He can be reached at, or Skype mark.anderson43