Tornado Season Is Here! Do You Have A Safe Room?

Tornadoes are the most fatal natural disaster in the U.S.—make sure your family is protected.

by John Morgan
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Over the last several years, the growing season has brought more than developing crops and grazing livestock: Tornadoes have ransacked much of the country. The United States is the world leader in funnel clouds—a decidedly dubious distinction—averaging 1,253 per year from 1991 to 2010, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

All 50 states have recorded tornadoes; however, the Great Plains, Midwest and South serve as the country’s epicenter of tornadic activity. As Mother Nature’s most destructive weather force, tornadoes have killed more Americans than hurricanes or earthquakes since 1950, when data was first collected. More than 500 fatalities occurred in 2011 alone.

Many homes and families remain unprotected from these rotating nightmares of air, as building codes don’t meet the standards required to withstand the extreme winds and flying debris associated with a tornado. As storm numbers grow, tornado shelters or safe rooms are becoming a more important consideration on the farm.

Assess Your Tornado Risk

The first phase in protecting yourself against a tornado is gauging your property’s risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency established a risk assessment based on a national wind zone map. If your farm falls in zone III or IV, you should seriously consider taking precautions to protect yourself, your family and your farm.

Plan Your Shelter

Ideal shelters are created during the building phase of the home. They tend to be less expensive when designed alongside the house itself and can be in more strategic locations. The best locations are in the central portion of the home, and the bathroom, basement and garage tend to be the most practical locations. A bathroom seems to be the most logical choice, but safe room doors are heavily reinforced steel and may not meet your home interior preferences.

Safe Room Options

Safe rooms are essentially miniature fortresses designed to withstand wind speeds up to 250 mph. They have layered walls, anchors and vault-like doors, and as such, you don’t want them to be any bigger than necessary: The room should be just big enough to hold your family or costs will quickly become unbearable.

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Shelters don’t have to be within the home. Outdoor options do exist and may be the best choice if your home is already built. They should be no farther than 150 feet from your house entrance, however, and the location should not be prone to flooding.

You can also build your own safe room. The room should be anchored by a cement floor, and the frame should be double-studded with a vertical sheet of 3/4-inch plywood followed by another vertical sheet.

You can add an outside drywall layer to make the safe room more appealing to the eye. The final layer of innermost protection is comprised of 14-gauge steel sheets. The certified tornado-proof steel door should be mounted in a steel frame with three deadbolt locks. FEMA estimates that an installed 8-by-8-foot safe room will run between $8,000 and $9,500, but you can dramatically reduce that figure by doing it yourself.

There are several prefabricated safe room options: Some can be placed within a basement or garage, while others are designed for outdoor in-ground or aboveground options. Companies often advertise safe rooms as multipurpose rooms for storage or vaults for valuables, but when you need to take shelter in the room, do you have time to empty it out? Keep that in mind before filling your safe room to the brim.

Safe rooms are a significant investment on the farm. As with any business decision, assess risk appropriately. However, be aware the risk isn’t financial: It’s the lives of you and your family members.

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