GIVE ME SHELTER
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram
- Life & Arts Section,
June 28, 2000
SAFE ROOMS. REINFORCED CLOSETS. CONCRETE WALLS
AND STORM CELLARS. THERE'S MORE THAN ONE WAY TO PROTECT YOUR
HOME FROM TORNADIC WINDS. HERE'S OUR WHIRLWIND GUIDE TO 6 TORNADO
Maybe you know they exist.
They're called safe rooms or tornado shelters
- reinforced rooms built to withstand tornadic winds and flying
debris. You can install a safe room in your home or dig an underground
shelter in your yard.
Maybe you don't know how well they work.
"Your odds of survival improve about
98 percent with a structure like that," says Ken Hornbeck,
executive director of Fort Worth's Society of Professional Building
Maybe that's why you don't have one - yet.
Hornbeck says tornado shelters aren't common
in North Texas. He estimates that only about 3 to 5 percent of
homes in the area have them.
Texans tend to be especially relaxed about
tornadoes, says Trey Thompson, sales manager at Storm Chaser
Shelters in Fort Worth.
"People think that a storm shelter belongs
in Kansas or in Oklahoma, not in Texas," he says.
Reality hit home this spring when tornadoes
tore through downtown Fort Worth and Arlington. Thompson says
his office received plenty of calls in the days immediately after
the March 28 tornadoes.
"People are starting to become more aware,"
he said. "It definitely opens people's eyes."
Richard Rhodes, an Abilene homeowner, had
his eyes opened in 1970. He was a student at Texas Tech University
when an F5 tornado killed 26 people in Lubbock. It hit downtown
one May night, leaving a path of destruction wider than a mile
and more than 8 miles long.
Rhodes' wife had her own close encounter with
a tornado: When she was a child, part of her home and her elementary
school were destroyed in a tornado in Haskell in the 1960s.
The Rhodes family didn't want to risk it again.
When they built a new home in 1986, they included a safe room.
It's a steel-reinforced concrete room that
Rhodes uses as an office. The room has electricity and air conditioning
and is insulated, and the interior walls are finished and sheetrocked.
It looks just like any other room in the house.
"The walls are a little thicker, but
you can't tell," Rhodes says. "If you were to look
at the door and walls, there's no clue that it's anything different."
Building a safe room within a new home is
the simplest, and least expensive, way to get a shelter, but
for most people it's not the most practical.
Fort Worth residents Steve and Brigid Kojak*
built a home recently, but they didn't know about safe rooms
until after they moved in.
The Kojaks moved here from southern California
in 1998. A friend from Amarillo told the Kojaks about Tornado
Alley, and they realized they were moving into a high-risk area.
"We built a new house, but we didn't
know about safe rooms until after the fact," Brigid Kojak
When their daughter was born last year, they
decided to invest in an underground tornado shelter; it was installed
"My next-door neighbor put in a deck,"
Brigid Kojak says. "My other neighbor put in a spa. We put
a big door in our back yard."
Arlington resident Charles Murphy and his
wife, Jamie, had their underground shelter installed in the wake
of the March 28 tornadoes.
Murphy, 71, was a television reporter before
he retired; he covered several tornadoes and hurricanes and says
he has seen firsthand what powerful storms can do.
"We always felt kind of vulnerable, especially
in the spring," Murphy says.
When the storms hit this spring, the Murphys
called Flower Mound's Storm and Tornado Shelters of Texas.
The shelter was installed the next week.
Here's our whirlwind guide to 6 tornado shelters.
1. Build underground
What you get: A storm cellar (think Dorothy's
Kansas home in The Wizard of Oz) that sits underneath the ground,
separated from your house, designed to protect you in an F4 tornado
- or even stronger if you are completely underground. Some shelters
are partially above ground; others are buried completely.
How it's done: You may purchase a pre-constructed
outdoor shelter and have it professionally installed. Some companies
make these shelters from plate steel and galvanize them to prevent
corrosion; other companies use concrete reinforced with steel.
You can bury your shelter completely or opt
to leave a few feet of it above the surface. Doors have multiple
hinges and locks. A stairway (or ramp) takes you down into the
shelter. Some companies install furniture and shelving; most
at least offer benches for seating.
Several sizes are available. The smallest
shelters usually hold 6 to 10 people; the largest hold 20 to
Pros: This shelter requires no changes to
the structure of your home. And you have the benefit of being
Cons: You have to go outside to get into these
shelters. People tend to wait until the last minute to seek shelter,
and at that point, going outside can be more dangerous than staying
Cost: $3,800-$6,000 for the shelter; an additional
$600-$1,200 for installation (which requires a backhoe).
2. Reinforce your closet
What you get: An interior room designed to
withstand at least 250 mph (F4) tornadic winds and flying debris.
In theory, the room will be standing even if the rest of the
house blows away.
How it's done: A small, windowless room in
the house - a study, a bathroom, a walk-in closet - can be made
into a safe room. If you're not building a new house, the safe
room must be retrofitted; this is done by building a room within
a room, creating an entirely new structure with a thick layer
A well-tested method uses plywood and steel
on wood studs. Layers of 3/4-inch plywood and 12-gauge sheet
metal form the room's walls and ceiling, supported by 2-by-4
studs. The room must be anchored to a concrete slab foundation;
if your house has a pier-and-beam foundation, you can remove
that part of the floor and install a concrete foundation below
the designated room.
The door is crucial; a missile-resistant door
can be made with plywood and steel as well. You can use this
as you would a regular door - or you can use a conventional door,
with the reinforced door in a pocket inside the shelter so you
can close it in an emergency.
Researchers at Texas Tech University's Wind
Engineering Research Center have tested safe rooms as big as
8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet.
Pros: The room's central location makes it
accessible in an emergency. You can store things you want to
keep - photo albums, important documents - in this room and they're
Cons: A safe room's walls need to be about
6 1/2 inches thick, so prepare for your room to be smaller than
the closet; you'll lose space on all sides.
Cost: $3,000-$6,000 for an 8-by-8 room. Materials
alone will cost 2,500-$3,000; any additional cost depends on
whether you build it yourself or have a professional do the work.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers
detailed directions and specific plans for building an in-residence
shelter. To request a free copy of Taking Shelter From the Storm:
Building a Safe Room Inside Your House, call (888) 565-3896.
3. Attach a safe room
What you get: An extra room in your house
designed to withstand an F4 tornado or stronger. Like a interior
safe room, this type of shelter is a part of house - but it's
added on to an exterior wall. You can expand a bedroom closet
or add a storage room, for instance, then brick the outside of
the shelter. The safe room becomes a part of the house.
How it's done: You have several options for
this type of shelter. One method uses 8-inch-thick concrete blocks
reinforced with steel.
The ICF (insulating concrete form) method
uses either foam insulation blocks or concrete masonry blocks.
These blocks are stacked up like interlocking plastic building
blocks and reinforced with steel bars; then concrete is poured
into the voids to make a sturdy wall.
Another option: You can purchase a pre-existing
shelter made of steel with a heavy duty deadbolted door; when
this shelter is installed, it will be encased in steel-reinforced
concrete and made a part of the house.
Pros: You get more space - maybe an extra
closet or laundry room. The add-on makes a shelter possible if
you don't have a windowless interior room.
Cons: It may not offer easy access from all
parts of the house.
Cost: $5,000-$8,000; varies widely depending
on how it's done
4. Buy a free-standing safe room
What you get: A safe room, made of concrete
and reinforced with steel, that is an independent structure designed
to withstand F4 tornadic winds.
How it's done: These structures are often
made the way add-on safe rooms are constructed - with insulating
concrete forms, concrete and steel. The same type of structure
that is added to your home can be a separate building.
Pros: Building a separate structure means
you don't have to alter your home. An above-ground shelter is
the best choice for the elderly or the disabled.
Cons: An outdoor shelter is in a less convenient
and less accessible place than a safe room. It takes more time
and effort to go to this type of shelter in the event of an emergency.
Cost: Cost is comparable to an add-on room,
but price depends on size and location and materials.
5. Build a safe room into your new home
What you get: A safe room in the best location,
made from the best materials; if made according to standards,
it will withstand at least 250 mph winds.
When you're building a new home, putting in
a safe room is easier and relatively cheaper - and you have more
options. Since you don't have to work around what's already in
place, you can choose your materials and location with few limitations.
How it's done: The walls of the safe room
can go up with the rest of the house. Steel, concrete and plywood
are usually involved; since the structure is brand-new, you can
use the best combination of these materials for the room you
want to create.
Pros: Safe rooms are usually relatively less
expensive when they're installed as the house is being built.
You can also use the best materials and put the room wherever
you want it.
Cons: You have to build a new house to get
this type of shelter.
Cost: Less than a retrofitted shelter. Expect
to pay an additional $20 per square foot for the designated room,
whether it's a storage closet or a full-size study.
When you're building a home, you usually have
to do research and ask your builder for a safe room, says Larry
Tanner, a structural engineer, registered architect and lecturer
and research associate for Texas Tech University's Wind Engineering
Research Center. But researchers hope they'll become more common.
"We hope that builders will start offering shelters as an
add-on just like they offer berber carpet and ceramic tile,"
6. Build a tornado-proof house
What you get: The entire house is one big
safe room, made of concrete with a storm-resistant roof. Just
like a safe room, the house should be designed to withstand 250
mph winds or more.
How it's done: The house has concrete walls
that are reinforced with steel. The construction is like a safe
room - but the entire house is built this way. The concrete walls
are 6 or 8 inches thick; hurricane clips reinforce the ceiling
and roof. Doors are made of steel, and windows contain shatter-proof
glass. Usually an interior room is designated a safe safe room,
with double reinforcements and no windows.
There are no specific design limitations for
a concrete home; with siding and other cosmetic additions, the
house can look just like a regular house.
Pros: Super-thick walls lower the cost of
air conditioning and heating. Concrete walls reduce fire risk
- and insurance rates.
Cons: Initial building cost is higher than
a regular house.
Cost: Building a concrete home costs, on the
average, 5 percent more than building a regular wood-frame home.
This varies widely, though, and depends on factors such as the
region and the cost of lumber.
Tornado shelter sources
Texas Tech University Wind Engineering Research
Center, Lubbock, (888) 946-3287, www.wind.ttu.edu
Federal Emergency Management Agency, www.fema.gov
(click on Project Impact or Prevention/Mitigation in menu).
Call (888) 565-3896 to order Publication 320:
Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a
Safe Room Inside Your House.
Storm and Tornado Shelters of Texas, Flower
Mound, (877) FUNNEL-1, www.shelters-of-texas.com
TriStar Development, Oklahoma City, (888)
765-9783, http://sites. netscape.net/amvicok/homepage
Storm Chaser Shelters, Fort Worth, (817) 947-9000
American Eagle Builders, Siding & Supply
Inc., Arlington, (817) 588-2050, www.americaneaglebuilders.com
Keep Safe of Texas, Abilene, (915) 692-4042
* The Fujita tornado scale, also called the
"F-scale," measures tornado intensity. On this scale,
tornadoes range from F0 to F5, according to wind speeds and destructive
power. About 40 percent of reported tornadoes are F1 storms.
than 1 percent of tornadoes are violent F5 storms - but the 261-318
mph winds can level a brick home.
The March 28 Tarrant County tornadoes were
F2 or F3 storms. A May 1999 Oklahoma City tornado was an F5 storm.
* The Fujita tornado scale:
F0: 40-72 mph winds. Light damage, mostly
to trees and exterior building features.
F1: 73-112 mph winds. Moderate damage - overturned
mobile homes, moving cars pushed off the road, roof surfaces
F2: 113-157 mph winds. Serious damage - large
trees uprooted, roofs torn off houses.
F3: 158-206 mph winds. Severe damage - trains
overturned, heavy cars lifted off the ground, roofs and walls
torn from well-built houses.
F4: 207-260 mph winds. Devastating damage
- houses leveled, cars thrown, large flying objects.
F5: 260-318 mph winds. Incredible damage -
Houses lifted from foundations and carried through the air, trees
debarked, cars flying through the air more than 100 yards.
* Every year in the United States, more than
3 billion man-hours are spent under tornado watches. In more
than half of the tornado watches issued, a tornado occurs somewhere
in the watch area.
* In a Federal Emergency Management Agency
survey conducted this spring, 56 percent of people questioned
(in states with high tornado risk) said they had done nothing
to prepare for their safety in a tornado. (On the positive side,
though, 14 percent said they had build a tornado safe room in
their home or business.)
* About 42 people each year are killed because
* The Texas Tech Wind Engineering Research
Center tested the sturdiness of shelters by hurling 15-pound
two-by-fours at the structures. The researchers used a compressed-air
cannon to send the missiles flying at 100 mph into walls and
doors and at 67 mph at roofs and ceilings.
* Safe rooms? Trendy? It may be coming. In
February, 11 builders dedicated a saferoom subdivision in Tulsa,
Okla. - an upscale development where each home contains an in-residence
shelter. Though just 22 homes are under
construction now, the first phase of the development eventually
will have 120
Sources: Federal Emergency Management Agency,
Texas Tech University Wind Engineering Research Center, National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Georgia State
University Science Education, Fort Worth
Alyson Ward, (817) 390-7988 email@example.com
ILLUSTRATION(S): Dave Seymour PHOTO(S): Wind
Engineering Research Center, Texas Tech University;Brian Lawdermilk;
Jill Johnson; TriStar Development, Oklahoma City
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