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Survive a Tornado | How to Choose a Safe Room

Safe rooms are designed to stay anchored to the ground during a tornado. But maybe more importantly, a safe room is designed to protect its occupants from deadly debris being hurdled through the air by 200-mph winds. Should you install an above-ground safe room structure in your basement or bury one in your back yard? Find out which option is best for your home.

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Safe Rooms Save Lives!

Safe Rooms Save Lives!

Tornadoes touch down an average of 1,000 times every year in the United States, and they've killed 1,000 people in the last 10 years. When a tornado with wind speeds over 250-mph hits a house, the house WILL NOT survive, but you and your family can. A properly constructed safe room/storm shelter provides close to absolute protection. Not only will a safe room save your life, you may be eligible to receive a discount on your homeowners insurance. And some states offer a generous rebate for residents who choose to build one. Read on to find out which safe room is right for you.

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Add a Safe Room When You Build Your HousePhoto courtesy of Lancia Homes

Add a Safe Room When You Build Your House

The best solution is to build your safe room when you build your new house. Have the concrete guys add a conveniently located safe room while they build the foundation. This option makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately most new homes in tornado alley are still being constructed without a dedicated safe room even though it may only add as little as one or two percent to the total cost of the home.

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Install an Above-Ground ShelterPhoto courtesy of Survive-a-Storm Shelters

Install an Above-Ground Shelter

Small above-ground shelters like these can be bolted to a concrete slab in a garage or basement. When considering a safe room like this, it's extremely important that the concrete is thick enough and is in good condition. And it has to have the proper amount of steel reinforcement (rebar). It's also extremely important that the proper fastening hardware is used and the installation instructions are followed to the exact specs of the manufacturer. Many manufacturers have engineers to help you though the process, and some may be able to recommend an installation contractor in your area. The unit shown here is made by Survive-a-Storm Shelters, and costs $3,695 (not including installation) at homedepot.com

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Assemble an Above-Ground Safe RoomPhoto courtesy of Swisher Safety Shelters

Assemble an Above-Ground Safe Room

Some larger safe rooms can be assembled in place and fastened to a concrete slab. Again, it's extremely important that the concrete meets the safe room manufacturer's recommendations and every installation instruction is followed to the letter. Above-ground units like this one are a good option for homes in areas with high water tables or bedrock that would hinder digging a hole for a below-ground safe room. The one shown here is made by Swisher Safety Shelters and costs $5,200, plus shipping and installation.

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Have a Safe Room Shed DeliveredPhoto courtesy of Safe Sheds Inc. 

Have a Safe Room Shed Delivered

This might be the perfect solution if you don't have a concrete slab to connect an above-ground unit to. And if a below-ground unit is not an option. A safe room shed like this one has its own steel-reinforced concrete base. All you need to do is create a flat area that the delivery truck can reach. This one is made by Safe Sheds, Inc. and costs less than $7,000, installed.

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Bury a Safe Room in Your BackyardPhoto courtesy of Life Pod Premium Shelters

Bury a Safe Room in Your Backyard

When the wind starts howling you can't get much safer than huddling in an underground safe room. Water is the biggest concern when considering an underground unit. Choose an above-ground option if you live in a flood zone. So underground shelters need to be located in a place where ground water won't pour into the unit during a torrential downpour. And even though the sides of a shelter like this one are waterproof, a high water table or saturated soil can cause it to bob up like a bobber.

If you have options for where to put the shelter on the property, bury it away from that 80-ft. oak tree or any other structures that may end up landing on top of the safe house. You will still survive, but may have to wait to be rescued. The shelter shown here is made by Life Pod and is available at homedepot.com. It costs between $4,000 and $8,000 depending on the model (not including installation).

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Bury a Safe Room in Your HousePhoto courtesy of OKC Home Improvements

Bury a Safe Room in Your House

You can also go underground inside the home. And the garage is an ideal place for this because you don't lose any square footage in your basement. Even though an automobile can drive over a unit like this one, try to install it in an open space, so you don't have to move the family wagon when you're racing against impending doom. This project was completed by OKC Home Improvements. And this shelter holds 4-6 people and costs less than $3,000 installed, but prices can vary quite a bit depending on the location.

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Build Your OwnImage courtesy of FEMA

Build Your Own

Another option is to build your own out of wood framing, a couple sheets of sheathing and a layer of sheet metal. In order for to be considered "safe," a safe room needs to be built to the standards spelled out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in their P-320 document. You will also have to buy a safe room door that is built to the proper specifications. You or your contractor can find the building specs at along with everything else there is to know about safe rooms.

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Stock the Shelter with Emergency Supplies

Stock the Shelter with Emergency Supplies

Don't treat a safe room as a storage closet. Keep it organized and ready to go. And FEMA suggests stocking it with the storm kit items:

• Battery-powered or crank-operated flashlight to inspect your home or office after the tornado has passed, including spare batteries. • Battery-powered or crank-operated radio to listen for emergency updates and news reports. • First aid kit. • Complete change of clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, work gloves, and sturdy, thick-soled shoes. These will protect  you from further injury by broken glass, exposed nails, or other objects. • Whistle or air horn to notify rescuers in case you are trapped by debris resulting from the tornado. • Dust mask to protect you from inhaling particles and fine debris. • Food and water for a day or two; consider specific dietary considerations. • Your medications and medical supplies. • If you have children, a special item (e.g., stuffed animal, book, game) to provide comfort. • Important documents including homeowner's insurance info.

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Additional Important Information

Additional Important Information

  • Tell friends, trusted neighbors and first responders (fire and police) where your safe room is, so they can come to your rescue if the exit becomes blocked by debris.
  •  Build or purchase the proper size shelter. Consider the residents of the home as well as any neighbors you care to invite. It may sound selfish, but inviting more people than the shelter can hold could have disastrous consequences.
  •  Get a permit.
  • Hire an inspector to make sure the safe room installation is up to snuff.
  • Don't fill the room up with stuff that will have to be moved before you can use the shelter
  • Look for products that meet or exceed the FEMA P-320 or the International Code Council (ICC-500) recommendations.
  • Save money and buy local. Shipping shelters is expensive, so check out qualified products available near your home.