This article is reprinted with permission of The Tuscaloosa News.
Tuscaloosa – For the next three days, all the secrets of surviving a tornado are packed inside an RV sitting in a parking lot not far from you.
In the wake of the December 16 tornado, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has loaded a response team into a recreational vehicle, called a Mobile Mitigation Assistance Vehicle, that arrived in Tuscaloosa Wednesday.
The team provides information on building safe rooms, which are steel-built, storm-resistant chambers that are designed to take a licking from high-force winds.
The RV, known as the Mobile Mitigation Assistance Vehicle, arrived Wednesday at the Lowe’s Center in Tuscaloosa. The vehicle will make three more stops at various spots through Saturday.
On a normal day, a safe room can double as a typical bathroom or closet, with one exception: This particular bathroom or closet tucks behind a steel door.
In the event of a tornado or some other disaster, the room can provide quick shelter for the family, said Jason Pack, a FEMA spokesman. Pack said a safe room imitates a vault and should resist wind speeds approaching 250 miles per hour.
To build a safe room into an existing house, a homeowner would need to retrofit, or restructure, a room or closet, framing the room in materials such as plywood, concrete and steel, and bolting the walls more rigidly into the ground.
FEMA hopes tornado victims who are rebuilding their homes will include a safe room in the new design, Pack said. Retrofitting an existing room costs about $3,000. Building a safe room inside a new home costs about $2,000.
FEMA, in coordination with Texas Tech University, developed a booklet of designs for safe rooms.
Most homebuilders don’t have a great deal of experience with safe room designs, but the detailed diagrams should be simple to follow, Pack said.
FEMA and Texas Tech researchers tested the designs extensively in the laboratory, said FEMA agent Ray Morgan, though there has been little real-world testing done in full-force tornado conditions.
"We have had so few cases that we don’t have a database yet," he said.
FEMA also wants citizens in disaster-prone areas to develop action plans for disasters and consider purchasing a weather radio, which sounds an alarm when severe weather strikes.