Build Storm Shelter to Keep Safe from Tornadoes

Posted on: 3 April 2006

Eric Evans, MU Extension emergency management specialist, exits a Federal Emergency Management Agency model of a single-family storm shelter. Evans uses it as an example of a simple but effective structure that can be built by a homeowner for about $2,000. Photo credit: Steve Morse photo, MU Extension and Agricultural Information.

With tornado season upon us, Eric Evans is on a campaign to educate Missouri families about the necessity of a storm shelter or safe room in every home.

The MU Extension emergency management specialist would relish the day when home builders routinely designed storm shelters into new houses. Instead, many homes are built on slab foundations, without a basement or a designated reinforced safe room. Adding a shelter to a new home would cost about $2,000, Evans estimated.

"They could sell a home so much easier, just by saying it has a tornado shelter built right into the home," he said.

Evans also wants to see laws passed requiring mobile home park owners to provide community storm shelters. Such structures, reinforced to withstand flying debris, could double as laundry or community rooms.

Pat Guinan, MU Extension climatologist, said Missouri averages 28 tornadoes annually. This year though, the state has had more than 50 already with nine months to go, he said. On March 12 the state set a single-day record, since thorough tornado statistics began being tallied in 1950, with 38 confirmed twisters.

"You cannot put a price on saving lives and peace of mind," Guinan said of building storm shelters. "We’re more likely to be a victim of flash flooding or lightning, but tornadoes definitely have more of a terror factor."

Grant Darkow, a University of Missouri professor emeritus of atmospheric science, spent his career researching severe weather and developed a probability model showing the chance of being hit by a tornado in a Midwest region. He predicted that any given point in the studied region, which includes Missouri, has a 1 percent chance of being struck in a 50-year period. That’s a relatively small risk, but Darkow said he definitely recommends that people who live in mobile homes have either a storm shelter or else a plan in place to leave for a concrete reinforced structure before a storm arrives.

"People who have basements, particularly reinforced ones, probably wouldn’t need to invest in a storm shelter," Darkow said.

Mobile homes tend to fly apart and into neighboring homes during tornadoes, he said.

"There are a disproportionate number of deaths in mobile homes," Darkow said. "You get a domino effect. Mobile homes are often all lined up in a row, and when one goes, they all go."

Evans uses a Federal Emergency Management Agency display model of a single-family six-by-eight-foot storm shelter as an example of a simple but effective structure. He takes it to fairs and conferences for public display. The walls are reinforced with two-by-fours and made of multiple pieces of plywood and sheet metal. Such a shelter could be built by a homeowner with basic carpentry skills for roughly $2,000.

"This could protect you from just about any type of flying object," Evans said.

Existing interior rooms of homes, like closets, can be reinforced to serve as an effective storm shelter too, he said. Professionally built single-family shelters can be placed in the ground near the home. They cost $3,000 to $8,000 including installation, Evans said.

Keep a family disaster kit in the shelter or safe room, Evan said, with food, water, basic first aid supplies, a flashlight, blankets and a battery-operated radio to monitor weather warnings.

For more information on storm shelter designs from FEMA, log on to http://www.fema.gov/hazard/tornado/to_saferoom.shtm.

For information on storm shelter demonstrations through MU Extension, contact Eric Evans at (573) 884-8984.