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What tornado safe room is right for you?

By Halie Kines, AccuWeather staff writer

If you live in an area where tornadoes or hurricanes are a high risk, you know the amount of damage they can cause. One way you can keep yourself safer during these severe weather events is by installing a tornado safe room in your house.

A safe room is a room typically made out of concrete and steel, specifically designed to meet safe room Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criteria. These rooms can provide a safe place and protection against severe weather, such as tornadoes and hurricanes.

FEMA categorizes safe rooms into three categories: in-ground, above-ground or within a basement. Above-ground rooms have to be tested to make sure they can also provide missile impact protection.

"Around [Kansas], if people have shelter for a tornado or something like that, it's underground. As you go south, you start to get into areas where the water table is really high and it costs a lot of money to dig into the ground, so you have a lot less underground shelters and a lot more above-ground safe rooms," said AccuWeather Senior Storm Warning Meteorologist Rich Putnam.

Tornado shelter - AP

In this May 24, 2013, file photo, Sabrina Mitchell takes a peek inside a neighbor's storm shelter in Moore, Okla. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Residential safe rooms are rooms that are in or near houses and used to protect a family, while community safe rooms are typically larger to provide safety for multiple people.

Most safe rooms can be added to an existing home on the first floor, in a basement or it can be built in the backyard or off of a porch. Some safe rooms can be utilized as a closet or even a bathroom.

If you're building a new home, you can easily plan for a safe room to be added. If a safe room is being added to your existing home, the structure needs to be separate from the main structure of the house.

Safe rooms must be able to withstand wind speeds up to 250 mph and impacts from a 15 lb 2x4 board traveling at 100 mph, according to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, Inc. (FLASH). FLASH is a nonprofit advocate for "strengthening homes and safeguarding families from natural and manmade disasters," according to its website.

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FEMA has design and construction guidelines for installers to follow for a shelter to be considered a FEMA safe room. Additionally, any applicable federal, state and local codes need to be followed.

"There is a difference between tornado and hurricane safe rooms. You're dealing with different hazards when you shelter from either one of them," said AccuWeather Meteorologist and Implementation Manager Tom Bedard. As an implementation manager for AccuWeather, Bedard specializes in preparedness and emergency management.

"[During] tornadoes, obviously you're looking to protect yourself from flying debris, from extremely high winds and also from flooding, and damage from the structure that you're inside of," Bedard said.

"Hurricane safe rooms are kind of different, where you're primarily trying to get out of the flood area, but also trying to shelter from low-end debris, low-end tornadoes, and general high winds."

"More often than not tornado shelters are not the same, as you find very few dedicated hurricane shelters in the world," Bedard said.

FLASH has a series of videos outlining the different construction styles of tornado safe rooms. They can be constructed with masonry concrete block, wood, insulated concrete forms, cast-in-place concrete or precast concrete.

Masonry concrete block

Masonry concrete blocks are reinforced by grouting the cells of the blocks together and then reinforcing them with a vertical rebar. Rebar is, simply put, a steel bar or wires used as a tension device to hold everything in place. The top of the walls have two rows of steel.

Wood frame with steel sheathing

A wood construction safe room consists of a wood frame with steel sheathing, which adds extra protection.

It is constructed using wooden boards, a sheet of 14-gauge steel and two layers of plywood.

Insulated concrete form

The form of an insulated concrete room is a hollow foam block. Each side is made out of expanded polystyrene insulation. The form stays in place and insulates the room.

The roof is made with the same material, but it also has three beams of steel-reinforced concrete.

Cast-in-place concrete

Cast-in-place concrete is made with an aluminum form and there is a grid of steel reinforcement. Paneled forms are brought into the job site already assembled. You put the rebar into it for reinforcement and then concrete is poured into it.

Once the concrete has hardened, the panels are removed and the concrete is exposed.

Precast concrete

Precast concrete is assembled off site—concrete is placed into the mold and then trucked to the final location. Form liners can make the exterior look like anything, so it can easily be added into a new home or as an addition to an existing home. There is an opening that is protected by steel so that there is a little ventilation.

With any safe room, FLASH points out that it's important to pick a door that has been tested and certified as a tornado safe room door. To be certified, it has to pass an impact projectile test (15 lb. 2x4 traveling at 100 mph) and a pressure test, among others.

Bedard said that it’s important to know where your safe place is so when the National Weather Service issues a tornado watch, you know exactly what to do and where you're going.

“That may mean finding a location that has a safe room. In many circumstances that may be a big public place like a mall, but that is not a Walmart, or a Dillons or a Lowe's. They really don’t have the ability to shelter that many people,” Bedard said.

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