Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Life & Arts Section, June 28, 2000



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 Designers.

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 says.

When their daughter was born last year, they decided to invest in an underground tornado shelter; it was installed in January.

"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 40.

Pros: This shelter requires no changes to the structure of your home. And you have the benefit of being underground.

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 put.

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 of protection.

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 automatically protected.

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," Tanner says.

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,

Federal Emergency Management Agency, (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,

TriStar Development, Oklahoma City, (888) 765-9783, http://sites.

Storm Chaser Shelters, Fort Worth, (817) 947-9000

American Eagle Builders, Siding & Supply Inc., Arlington, (817) 588-2050,

Keep Safe of Texas, Abilene, (915) 692-4042

Twister tidbits

* 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. Less
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 peeled off.

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 of tornadoes.

* 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
Star-Telegram archives

Alyson Ward, (817) 390-7988

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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*Note: The names "Steve and Brigid Kojak" in the above article are ficticious and has been changed to protect these individual's privacy. The "Kojaks" and Charles Murphy are Storm and Tornado Shelter clients. We appreciate their willingness to speak with the media regarding thier storm shelter and the reasons they invested in a shelter.
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