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How to design a safe room to protect against severe weather

Disaster-preparedness guides often instruct you to head to your basement in case of dangerous weather, but that's not always an option. In Joplin, Missouri, where a powerful tornado killed 158 people in 2011, almost nine of every 10 homes had no basement. And basements aren't always safe because of broken windows, flying debris and the potential for flooding.

For many there's a better option: specially built safe rooms and storm shelters that help protect your family while the weather rages. "If you know there's a safe place, you don't have to worry so much when you see a storm coming." says Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, which studies and improves hurricane and tornado shelters. An appropriate shelter depends on your location, the size of your family and your home's condition. For example if you're in an area with a high risk of hurricanes, consider a larger shelter because you may have to wait out the storm for hours. Tornadoes pass by relatively quickly.

The chart helps you figure out what kind of shelter best suits your needs. Make sure your shelter meets Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommendations for "near-absolute protection" in extreme weather. Satisfactory shelters should withstand a tornado classified as EF-5, with wind speeds possibly exceeding 200 miles per hour.

"This is not an area where you want to do the minimum," Kiesling advises. "You don't want to worry whether the coming storm has 160 mph winds or 250 mph winds. Your shelter should be able to withstand the worst-case scenario."

How a safe room protected one family

Kevin and Sarah Beth Harrison, with their two children, huddled inside a safe room that Kevin and his father built inside the family detached garage. After the storm, the garage was gone. The only thing left standing was the safe room. This Alabama family survived the massive tornado strike that ripped through their Athens, Alabama, neighborhood, killing nearly 250 people.

The Harrisons were honored for their foresight by the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, FLASH®.

Having a safe room built into your house can protect you and your family from the dangerous forces of nature. FEMA has developed plans for a family shelter space for use in the event of a natural disaster. The safe room plans, researched by Texas Tech University, come in a variety of designs for rooms in the basement and rooms on the main floor for homes without basements.

The safe rooms are built out of reinforced concrete, reinforced concrete block, or wood-framed walls with plywood and steel sheathing. The room is covered with a similar structural ceiling/roof that is independent of the house structure. Everything is tied down to the foundation from the top of the safe room to resist the uplift forces generated during a tornado or hurricane. The exterior materials and structure of the safe room are impact resistant to protect the occupants from wind-borne debris.

A safe room can provide ultimate life safety protection from the dangerous forces of severe winds and tornadoes. Homeowners can build or retrofit the interior spaces of their homes to safe-room standards or choose to purchase prefabricated safe rooms designed to withstand tornado-force winds. Closets, bathrooms, laundry rooms and outdoor rooms like garden sheds and pool houses can also be enhanced to serve as safe rooms.

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