How to Build a Tornado Shelter

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Larry Tanner, a lecturer and research associate with Texas Tech University’s Wind Science and Engineering School, tells you how to protect yourself from the biggest twisters with a shelter that can withstand even the most powerful winds.
Larry Tanner, a lecturer and research associate with Texas Tech University’s Wind Science and Engineering School, tells you how to protect yourself from the biggest twisters with a shelter that can withstand even the most powerful winds.(photo: Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images)

Larry Tanner has seen it happen far too frequently. A tornado is coming, and a TV meteorologist tells viewers the storm is too big to be faced anywhere but in an underground shelter.

“Some people will leave the relative safety of their well-built home and get in their car and get killed,” said Tanner, a lecturer and research associate with Texas Tech University’s Wind Science and Engineering School. “(The meteorologists) are implying, ‘I don’t care if you have a fancy above-ground safe room. Get out of where you are and find another place.’ That’s total lunacy.”

Tanner has spent more than a dozen years at the Lubbock, Texas, university studying what materials and designs make for the most reliable above-ground storm protection. Based on his extensive research, he offered advice on what to look for when it comes to creating an effective tornado shelter.

eHow: Which type of tornado shelter is most commonly used these days?

LARRY TANNER: If you took a census across the country, you’d find underground or basement shelters are predominant. Above-ground shelters in the home are still a fairly new concept. They really came about (after) the devastating 1997 tornadoes in Jarrell, Texas. The idea has taken off since then. My guess is there are between 75,000 and 100,000 above-ground shelters in the country now, and while some are community-sized, most are residential.

eHow: What is the advantage of having an above-ground shelter?

LT: Lots of people don’t have room for an underground shelter, or they don’t want one because, no matter how fancy you make them, they’re probably going to be smelly and full of bugs. The above-ground concept, especially if you build it inside your home, gives you easier access and makes you much more comfortable. You don’t need to delay access as you might with an underground shelter. It’s a simple concept, but not one embraced by everyone.

eHow: Have above-ground safehouses proven to be as sturdy as those buried in the ground?

LT: After last year’s tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, the city found half a dozen above-ground shelters that had been tested in our laboratory. ... (In each case) the shelter and its occupants survived perfectly. Enough of these shelters have now gone through major storms for us to know that not only do they work conceptually but also in reality.

eHow: If someone insisted on having an underground shelter, are they easy to build?

LT: You can buy them, and the manufacturer will come and dig a hole in your yard and bury it. It’s a fairly easy deal, but they have drawbacks in terms of gathering bugs and mustiness. Some of them leak a little bit and get damp inside. Also, if they’re not properly anchored, they can sometimes float out with a high water table.

eHow: If someone does want to try building a shelter on their own, what should his first step be?

LT: I suggest going to the Federal Emergency Management Agency website,, and downloading FEMA 320, “Taking Shelter From the Storm.” That booklet has drawings for six or eight different shelter designs using different building systems, from double-stud walls with plywood and sheet steel to one poured in place with concrete. There are several different designs, and it’s all pretty well-detailed as to how to build a general 8-by-8 shelter.

eHow: How difficult is it to build an above-ground shelter?

LT: You can do it yourself, based upon your level of skill and what design you use. The plywood and steel shelter is designed specifically to retrofit a room in an existing home. It’s like building a room within a room. There aren’t any great skills involved in that. If you’re a good handyman, you can certainly do it. But not a lot of people are building shelters on their own. Most of them are having contractors build them. They want the shelter to match their homes and be aesthetically pleasing. Most of the new shelters, though, are built into new homes while the homes themselves are being constructed.

eHow: Where is the best place to build an above-ground shelter?

LT: I much prefer something attached on the inside of the house. In a storm, it’s all about the time it takes you to access it. If it’s something detached out on the porch or somewhere else, you have to walk to it. Most are being installed in garages, but I like adding it onto your master bedroom as part of a new master closet. If you construct the shelter as a part of your home, it becomes a dual-use space. That gets you a better return on your investment because you’re using your shelter every time you walk into your closet or sit down to work at your computer.

There was a lady in Oklahoma City who put in a shelter as part of a new master closet. During the tornado there in 1999, she and her mother and pets survived using that safe room even though the rest of the house was devastated. I said to her, “You went to that room every day just to pick out something to wear, but one day, that room saved your life.”

eHow: The old wives’ tale is that during a storm, the bathroom is the safest place to go. Is that a place to add a shelter?

LT: I don’t recommend it. There’s too much expense and time involved in coordinating the new plumbing through new walls and such. Plus, most bathrooms have windows, which makes them less safe. Usually, closets are the best place to retrofit a shelter.

eHow: Is there any common mistake people make when they construct a shelter?

LT: I emphasize paying close attention to the connection between the safe room and the house proper. It should be a somewhat weakened connection. You don’t want the safe room (getting) the (same) wind forces imposed on the whole house. You want the safe room standing (if the house gets blown away).

eHow: Is there one time of year that’s better than another to install above-ground shelters?

LT: Well, if you’re going to build one, you should already have done it. We’re now acutely conscious that tornadoes happen 12 months out of the year. Generally, the most violent ones occur in warmer months. But really, they happen whenever you have a confluence of different temperatures and weather systems combine with the jet stream. You can get that on a warm, muggy day in November. It’s no longer a question of “Should I build a shelter?” but “When will the shelter be built?”

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