The Rise of DIY Tornado Shelters

By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, Staff Writer
5/1/2013 11:56:01 AM

With the first severe weather outbreak of the spring season 2014 expected this week and a spike of severe weather predicted for later in the season, people are now looking to protect themselves, and their families by building their own storm shelters. Back in 2011, the most active month for tornadoes on record resulted in 321 deaths in the United States. Since then, people are taking protection matters into their own hands.

Homes without storm cellars or basements offer little protection from a tornado. While windowless rooms and closets offer more safety than other parts of the house, people are still left vulnerable to tragedy when storms strong enough to level entire structures come through.

Robert Hanna, civil engineer, and Jeff Ice, quality assurance inspector, both from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, check out a tornado shelter. Photo courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers

Storm shelters are built to withstand winds that standard household rooms are not equipped to handle. There have been cases of safe rooms remaining completely intact, protecting the people inside, as the entire building around it crumbled to the ground in a tornado. As people try to prepare for the worst, companies that produce do-it-yourself storm and tornado shelters are reporting a sharp increase in sales.

Storm shelters can come in a variety of styles. Small safe rooms with thick steel walls may be placed in a garage and bolted to the cement floor. Safe rooms may also be constructed of concrete or built outside of the house. Holes can be dug in the garage floor, and a small shelter inserted several feet below the surface for people to hurry into if a storm approaches. They can also be built into the ground outside like a bunker or bomb shelter. Unlike typical bomb shelters, however, storm shelters are not built to sustain people for long periods of time. Rather, they just offer protection for the duration of a passing tornado.

An in-ground storm shelter, courtesy of Wesley Fryer and

Storm shelters can be included during the construction of new homes. Existing homes that have no safe place from storms can have the shelters added by professionals, or they can be completed by the homeowners using kits sold by companies that specialize in do-it-yourself safe rooms. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has instructions online "based on extensive research of the causes and effects of windstorm damage to buildings" that can walk people through the process of building storm shelters on their own. FEMA also has programs in place to help offset the costs of storm shelters to make them more accessible to home owners.

A storm shelter is only effective if installed properly. When building a shelter or safe room on your own or with a kit, it is essential that all instructions are followed exactly. This includes not skipping steps or substituting materials. If people are unsure of their own abilities to build the shelters, they should hire a professional instead.

If you do not have a basement or storm cellar and cannot acquire a storm shelter or safe room, there are other important safety tips to follow when a storm is coming your way. Get to the lowest possible level of the building you are in, and avoid being near any windows. Closets and bathtubs are usually the safest areas. If there is a storm shelter in your town and a tornado has already been seen on the ground, do not leave your home. Getting caught in a tornado on your way to another shelter is incredibly dangerous. You are safer in your home than in your car.