Shelter from Tornadoes in a Home Safe Room

Texas has the highest average annual number of tornadoes in the United States. According to the Texas Almanac, an average of 132 tornadoes touch down each year. While tornadoes are more common during late spring and early summer, that does not make them predictable. They can occur at any time, any day, of any month, and that can be frightening for a family. Do you have a residential safe room for your loved ones to take shelter at a moment’s notice?

New or Existing Home? You Have Options.

While an in-ground shelter or tornado cellar is the safest place to be during a tornado, a residential safe room can offer similar protection for homes without a basement. A safe room can be integrated into a new home design or most existing homes.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) a safe room is defined as, “a structure that will provide near-absolute protection from severe storms.”

Safe rooms must meet specific safety standards and be constructed according to federal laws, and they need to be able to withstand 250 mph winds and over 3,000 pounds of force, more than an EF-5 tornado.

This is a client project where we added the safe room into the floor of the master closet.

How to Build a Safe Room?

First, you will need to determine if your safe room will be built above or below ground. You should then consult with a registered design professional such as an architect or engineer who is familiar with the construction of safe rooms. They can make recommendations for reputable builders and can also guide you so that your safe room will meet or exceed current FEMA criteria.

Residential safe rooms can be added to the design of a new home build or built as a stand-alone above or below ground shelter. There are companies that focus solely on manufacturing storm shelters that can be ordered and installed in your home.

Garage stand alone shelter

This above-ground storm shelter can be installed in your garage, basement, or wherever you can anchor it to a concrete foundation. Photo by Protection Shelters LLC

Alternatively, you can upgrade a room such as an interior bathroom, bedroom, pantry, closet, or office to become your safe room. This option allows you to continue using your safe room every day and not just in an emergency.

If you plan to modify a room or retrofit an existing room, you must plan for the safe room to be anchored to the foundation, but the walls and ceiling framing must not be connected to the house framing. Imagine if a tornado tore off the roof of your house, you would want your safe room to still be standing independently and not be compromised by damaged house ceiling or roof framing.

How Large Should a Safe Room Be?

When planning the size of your safe room, keep in mind how many people (and pets) it will need to accommodate, and any special accessibility needs your family might have.

Remember, if you are converting a closet, for example, into a safe room, it will need to be large enough to hold all the people taking shelter in addition to the clothes and household items normally stored there. In the event of a fast-approaching storm or tornado, you will not have time to empty the closet to make room for people.

What Materials are Needed to Build a Safe Room?

A typical safe room is made of concrete, steel, and plywood or fiberglass. It must be adequately anchored to the foundation to resist overturning and uplift. Safe rooms can be built on a concrete slab-on-grade foundation, a garage floor, or in an interior room on the first floor of your home.

You may also want to consider a prefabricated manufactured shelter or safe room to save on costs. Just make sure it meets FEMA’s recommendations, that it will be securely anchored to the foundation, and that it will provide adequate ventilation.

How Much Does a Safe Room Cost?

The cost of your safe room will vary, depending on the type of foundation your home is built on, and the size and location of your shelter. If you are building a new home or planning a renovation, making small changes to a room already being built is a cost-effective way to add a safe room. Additionally, check with your local emergency management office to see if funds and grants are available for retrofitting your safe room.

What Goes Inside a Safe Room?

Once your residential safe room is built, you’ll want to equip it with emergency preparedness items. Comfort and safety supplies such as water, flashlights, batteries, a radio, non-perishable food, and blankets will help your family be comfortable for a few hours until the storm passes. Survival items should be added to ensure you can weather a few days or longer should a severe disaster hit your area.

If you’re unable to find a contractor to help build a safe room for you, there are some DIY options available (see below and click on image for more detail). Always do your research and consult with professionals when possible.