The devastating line of tornadoes that tore across Kentucky and neighboring states last December, destroying lives and property, were not the last to strike the area out of season. Early January brought more twisters – along with additional structural damage, though far less than the pre-Christmas barrage and without loss of life. Are these unseasonal storm strikes a new normal? And, if so, what does it mean for resident safety?
“Tornado seasons are getting more variable,” writes meteorologist Bob Henson in Yale Climate Connections, adding that outbreaks are also getting larger and more frequent. “It’s important to keep in mind that tornadoes can develop anywhere, at any time of year,” he cautions. Recent trends have them shifting eastward, beyond what’s commonly known as Tornado Alley. “The biggest projected increase is in the Mid-South region from eastern Arkansas to the Appalachians,” he notes. What should you do if you live in an existing or expanded at-risk area?
Safe Home Considerations
Building codes can take years to catch up with nature’s painful lessons, so it’s best not to assume your existing home would keep your family safe during an intense twister, unless you had it custom built in the last decade or so with protective features.
“No matter what codes were in place, homes would not have been spared by the powerful tornadoes that devastated Kentucky,” comments Chuck Fowke, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders. “Homes built in the past 20 years to more modern codes fare much better during natural disasters than the older homes that make up the vast majority of the nation’s housing stock,” he cautions. What’s needed beyond updated codes is improvement to older homes that are less resilient. Do you live in one of those?
If so, you have several options to consider for adding safety. “The best storm shelter to protect against a powerful tornado is one that is easy to reach, well-designed and properly installed,” advises Bailey Carson, home expert at Angi (formerly Angie’s List). Underground shelters, safe rooms and above-ground shelters are all good options, he says, with underground being among the most secure from high winds. “However,” he cautions, “since they are below ground, they can be prone to flooding, so they may not be the best option in areas with high flood risk.”
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Above-ground storm shelters, also called safe rooms, can be installed in a closet, garage or storage room in your home. “These shelters are easier to get into if the storm has already started, and are more accessible for people with mobility issues,” Carson notes. They do require converting an existing room into specialized use, so that can present space challenges for some households.
The third option is a pre-built storm shelter, the home expert shares. “These are commonly attached to the side of a home and anchor to its foundation. They are a good option if you don’t have space to spare, but they are not quite as safe or efficient as in-home shelters.”
“Regardless of the option you choose, your storm shelter must be able to resist impact from airborne debris coming [from] high-speed winds,” Carson points out, adding, “It also needs structural integrity to withstand pressure from high-speed winds without collapsing.” If you live in a hurricane zone, your shelter also needs to conform to those code requirements. “It’s important to choose the best shelter for your home, family, property, budget and flood risk,” including size and accessibility considerations.
Costs vary considerably, starting from about $3,000 for a fiberglass or concrete shelter for up to six feet either below ground, in house or as a pre-built addition, Carson says. “As your shelter grows in size, it will also increase in cost. Shelters for six people tend to range from $3,000 to $8,000, while for 15-plus, they’re more likely to range from $10,000 to $30,000.” If you’re adding an above-ground shelter outside your home, you will likely also have excavating and grading costs, which can add up to $5,000 to your project.
Here are a few material comparisons the Angi pro provides:
Steel shelters can range in cost from $4,000 to $30,000, depending on size, features and location.
- Fiberglass shelters are a bit lower and more consistent in cost, ranging from $3,000 to $10,000. These can only be installed underground.
- Polyethylene shelters can only be installed underground, but are more environmentally friendly than fiberglass and tend to cost a bit less, ranging from $3,000 to $7,000.
- Concrete shelters are some of the most affordable, ranging from $3,000 to $7,000. These are extremely heavy and extremely secure, but given their weight, above-ground concrete shelters will require a pad to keep them from sinking.
- Kevlar is extremely secure and can be used to outfit an in-home safe room. It is also used to line steel in many pre-built shelters. Kevlar shelters tend to cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per room.
If you’re building a new home or addition, or reconstructing a home that was destroyed by a tornado already, Carson suggests incorporating a shelter into the project to make the process easier and less expensive than doing it later separately. “We have also heard of some contractors offering to include storm shelters in new home designs at a discounted rate in high-risk areas, so be sure to talk to your contractor about options.”
Just as with many other construction-related projects, there are costs to consider beyond the design and structure. “It’s important to consider the features and supplies that will make the shelter habitable for you and your family,” Carson comments. “This may include battery-operated ventilation, air filtration and lighting, as well as a simple plumbing system.”
Possible Funding Help
There could be government funds available to help with your project. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides money to eligible states, tribes and territories for residential safe room funding. Those entities, in turn, can provide them to homeowners.
To find out if you’re eligible and what’s required to receive support, the FEMA site directs you to contact a state hazard mitigation officer (SHMO). FEMA also provides a range of resources for residential safe room construction, codes and even building plans for them on its website.
A quick “DIY storm shelter” web search will bring up pages of results, including from such respected sources as The Family Handyman and Ask This Old House, but as this is an undertaking involving safety and building codes, it’s not a beginner project. If you or someone in your circle is extremely skilled and willing to take it on, it could be worth checking the FEMA site first and getting input on your site and plans from a licensed contractor, structural engineer or architect before starting. Lives may depend on it.