Safe rooms are becoming popular storm shelter choices. Depending on where you live, you may have to deal with tornadoes or landfalling tropical systems—or both. These storms pack winds that can cause anything from minor to catastrophic damage.
We have advance notice for hurricanes and tropical storms, but a tornado warning may be issued just minutes before the funnel plows through your backyard, leaving you no time to get to a distant shelter if your home offers no protection.
Where do you go for safety when a severe storm threatens? An interior room with no windows is a better choice than a room on the perimeter of a house, but there's no guarantee any part of your home will be standing after the storm passes.
A basement is a good choice, but most coastal residents don't have the option of including an underground level in their home plans.
What Is a Safe Room?
A safe room provides a space where you can survive a tornado or hurricane with little or no injury. Safe room components must be securely anchored and all connections between parts must be strong enough to stay intact during the strongest winds.
All safe room components must be resistant to penetration by airborne debris.
Another storm shelter choice that's becoming popular is the safe room, a structure within your home that's designed to withstand battering by ferocious winds and the debris caught up in them.
If you're at risk to a storm surge or any other flooding a safe room is not a good shelter, you must still evacuate to a secure location. If flooding isn't a problem, a safe room might be your best refuge in a storm.
Why Do Normal Structures Fail?
During severe weather, wind speeds rapidly increase and decrease. Any obstruction in the path of the wind causes the wind to change direction. The change increases the stresses on parts of the house. The combination of stress changes and increased wind speeds can cause normal building components to fail.
Doesn't It Help to Open a Window?
Have you ever been told to open a window during a tornado to help equalize the pressure? Government officials warn that encouraging wind to enter the building increases the risk of building failure, so keep those windows shut.
Flying Debris Causes Most Injuries
Injury from flying debris is one of the greatest risks during a storm. In extremely high winds, debris can be thrown at a building with enough force to slice through windows, walls, or the roof. Even masonry walls can be penetrated unless they have been constructed to resist impact during a storm. That's exactly what a safe room is designed to do.
Do I Need to Build a New House to Have a Safe Room?
FEMA has worked with engineering design schools and other facilities to develop plans for rooms that can be added to new or existing structures.
Designs are based on wind speeds that are rarely encountered in the U.S. The rooms may not come through a storm in brand-new condition, but that's not the intent. The objective is to help you survive an extreme windstorm with little or no injury.
Safe rooms can be located in a basement or on the main level in homes built on a slab or crawlspace.
In new construction, one or more regular basement walls can be reinforced to use as shelter walls if they do not contain windows or other openings. The shelter must have a special ceiling that resists penetration from debris above.
For new construction, the slab is poured thicker at the spot where a concrete shelter will sit.
If you are building a shelter within an existing slab home, it will likely need to be of wood frame construction instead of concrete. An alternative is to build a concrete shelter adjacent to the exterior of the home.
Shelters in Homes With a Crawlspace
The safe room shelter must have a separate foundation. Placing it inside an existing house would require cutting out a portion of the floor and installing new foundation members. It may be more practical to build an exterior shelter.
Multitask Your Safe Room
Your safe room needn't be a space that's only used in a storm. It can function as a walk-in closet, bathroom, storage space, or other room until it's needed for shelter.
For more information about safe rooms visit the FEMA website and download a copy of their plans booklet. It contains more details about shelter construction and suggests possible locations for a variety of floor plans.