Build a Safe Room and Know When to Use it

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Release date: 
June 24, 2011
Release Number: 
1980-086

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- While it may not have the allure of granite countertops or a whirlpool bathtub, a residential safe room is one rock-solid home improvement worth considering.

A safe room can protect a family from the deadly high winds associated with a tornado.

The severe storms and tornadoes causing so much damage this year and continuing to threaten the nation demonstrate clearly that although a home may be built to code, that does not mean it can withstand the extreme forces seen in tornadoes and straight-line winds.

Building a safe room following the design guides in FEMA publication Taking Shelter from the Storm (FEMA P-320 Third Edition), can help provide "near-absolute protection" for you and your family from injury or death caused by extreme winds. Homes and other buildings vary in construction type as well as foundation type. Regardless of the structure above, the following foundation types may be suitable for safe rooms:

  • Basements
  • Slab-on-grade
  • Crawlspace
  • Interior room on the first floor

"Any time is a good time to install a safe room, but when a home undergoes restoration -- that is the best time to include a hardened bathroom or a reinforced closet to meet your family's need for a safe room," said Libby Turner, federal coordinating officer for the U. S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Missouri. "It is easier and less expensive to plan and build a safe room during a full-scale repair."

A small interior room on the lowest living level of a home is the most practical location to convert a room to a safe room because warning times for tornadoes can be very short, making quick access to the safe room important.

The safe room could be described as a room within a room that will remain intact even if the surrounding house sustains major damage. The room needs to be rated to withstand winds in excess of 250 mph and flying debris that could include tree limbs, two-by-fours and concrete blocks.

Although construction costs vary across the United States, the budget for a safe room that can double as a master closet, bathroom, or utility room can range from $4,500 to $8,500 for an 8-foot by 8-foot safe room. A 14-foot by 14-foot safe room could cost $15,000 to $25,000. Costs may vary depending on the following factors:

  • size
  • location inside the building
  • number of exterior home walls used in the construction
  • type of door
  • type of foundation
  • location of the home

Although basement and in-ground safe rooms provide the highest level of protection against winds and wind-driven debris, above-ground designed safe rooms are capable of providing near-absolute protection in the event there are concerns related to flood hazards or high water tables. Here are additional considerations when building a safe room:

  • The safe room must be adequately anchored to resist overturning and uplift.
  • The walls, ceiling, and doors must withstand wind pressure and resist penetration by windborne objects and falling debris.
  • The connections between all parts of the safe room must be able to resist the wind.
  • Sections of either interior or exterior residence walls that are used as walls of the safe room must be separated from the structure of the residence so that damage to the residence will not cause damage to the safe room.

Taking Shelter from the Storm, which has construction plans and building supply lists for several types of safe rooms, can be ordered at 1-800-480-2520, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The publication may be downloaded from the FEMA Website at www.fema.gov/mit/tsfs01.htm and clicking on the line "http://www.fema.gov/plan/prevent/saferoom/inde...

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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