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    How to Build a Storm Shelter

    Authored by Tractor Supply Company

    When the weather gets violent, the most important thing is taking shelter. If you live in an area with an elevated risk of severe weather—take the Midwest, for example—proper storm preparedness can mean the difference between life and death. 

    It is important to be prepared. Though violent storms can be destructive and terrifying, you can take steps to keep yourself as safe as possible when they hit. Below are some pointers on making a storm shelter effective, choosing a safe location for your shelter, how to build a storm shelter, and what items you should keep in your storm shelter. 

    Key features for effective storm shelters

    You should always evacuate when advised to do so, but sometimes—like when a tornado touches down—evacuation isn’t an option. When a tornado warning or other severe weather alert sounds off, you might head for the basement or root cellar. Staying low during tornadoes or tropical storms is the safest thing to do. Still, there is the risk of structural collapse or flooding. That’s where storm shelters come in. 

    A storm shelter is a structure designed to withstand high winds and damage from storms like a tornado or hurricane. Effective storm shelters are designed to meet criteria set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

    Features of a storm shelter

    Storm shelters are built with materials such as concrete, steel and reinforced fiberglass to withstand high-speed winds and torrential downpours. The size, location and overall design of a shelter depend on your individual needs. 

    There are internal and external storm shelters, meaning they are in or out of your home. Internal storm shelters are easier to get to, but external storm shelters are good for homes where renovating the interior is difficult.  

    External storm shelters can be aboveground shelters or underground shelters. Aboveground shelters should be tested to withstand high wind and debris from all angles. An underground shelter should meet requirements for a flood elevation that can help floodproof the structure. 

    Factors affecting the design of a storm shelter include number of people in your household, accessibility of the shelter, types of storms you’re most at risk for, and ease of installing a storm shelter in your building. 

    Storm shelter criteria

    It’s important to work with designers who are very familiar with FEMA criteria. Be aware, though, FEMA does not endorse, approve or certify products, contractors or individuals. Anyone claiming their products are FEMA approved is doing so without permission and should be avoided. 

    Some states have their own certification programs and criteria to meet, be sure to research your state’s criteria. 

    Provisions for your storm shelter

    When planning a storm shelter, keep some things in mind. What provisions have you made for seating, lighting or ventilation? How many exits are there? Some storm shelters offer emergency hatches or screw jacks for forcing open the door in case of collapse or wreckage blocking the exit. 

    Depending on the manufacturer, storm shelters include benches, a ladder or stairs, battery-powered lighting, and other accessories, like a radio or portable toilet. 

    Choosing a safe location for your storm shelter

    When picking a safe location for your storm shelter, consider: 

    • convenience of access
    • budget
    • space
    • level of protection  

    Your shelter should be easy to access from all parts of the house, anchored to the foundation of the house and strong enough to resist collapse or wind-borne debris.  

    No matter what kind of shelter you build, the storm shelter door should be able to resist a minimum wind speed of 250 miles per hour and withstand impacts and wind pressures. The shelter door can be a weak spot for protection, so be sure that it meets FEMA requirements

    If considering an internal shelter, think about you would need to retrofit your home. Are you currently building a home, could a storm shelter be designed to be part of the build? Is there space for a prebuilt safe room? 

    If your storm shelter must be exterior, build it close to your house for ease to reach quickly. 

    Underground and aboveground shelters

    Properly built safe rooms will be equally protective whether aboveground or underground. However, aboveground safe rooms should be rigorously tested to withstand debris and high wind speeds from all angles.  

    Some aboveground interior safe rooms are built into a house during construction or renovations. Many manufacturers also offer prebuilt aboveground safe rooms that are designed to be installed in existing rooms without any renovations to the house. 

    Underground storm shelters need consideration for flood hazard restrictions. like a storm cellar, cannot be built in flood-prone areas. 

    Sheltering from tornadoes

    A tornado is a vortex of violently rotating air, often caused by supercell thunderstorms. Tornadoes are rated by the Enhanced Fujita Scale (or EF-Scale), with EF-0 being the least damaging and EF-5 being the most. Because tornadoes strike quickly and are difficult to forecast, teams of trained storm spotters work with the National Weather Service to help coordinate tornado warnings. When alerts sound, get to your shelter as quickly as possible. 

    Tornadoes are most common in Tornado Alley, a region of the southcentral United States that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. However, tornadoes have touched down in every state. Regions within a state also have different risk for tornadoes. Areas of Texas along the Gulf Coast are less tornado-prone than northern Texas, for example. 

    During a tornado, the safest place to be is underground. Staying as low as possible protects you from flying debris and strong winds. An underground concrete shelter, or storm cellar, is the safest option for protection against tornadoes. 

    If an underground shelter is unavailable, a reinforced safe room attached to the foundation of your house is a viable alternative. Following FEMA guidelines, a safe room in a one- or two-family home should have an area of at least three-square feet per person. 

    Sheltering from hurricanes

    A hurricane is a tropical storm with sustained winds that reach speeds of at least seventy-four miles per hour. Hurricanes are categorized by the Saffir-Simpson scale from C1, the least damaging, to C5, the most damaging. Hurricanes most commonly affect states along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast, with Florida receiving the most landfall from hurricanes. 

    Meteorologists can forecast hurricanes and issue evacuation warnings. If advised to evacuate from a hurricane, do not stay in your home, even if you have a storm shelter. Though the shelter may protect you from wind, floodwaters could trap you. Follow the advice of your local emergency services.  

    If no evacuation order has been issued, a hurricane shelter is the next safest option. Like a tornado shelter, a hurricane shelter is fortified to protect against high wind speeds and flying projectiles. FEMA recommends building shelters with at least seven square feet of space per person in a one- or two-family residence and ten square feet per person in other types of homes. 

    Both tornadoes and hurricanes have severe winds and risk of flooding. A tornado typically lasts only for a few minutes, while a hurricane can last for days. 

    Steps to building your storm shelter

    Storm shelter permits

    Requirements for building or installing a storm shelter vary from location to location. Some cities, such as Oklahoma City, require a building permit. 

    To get a permit, you may need to fill out an application and provide a copy of your floor plan, as well as a set of plans that includes the location and size of your storm shelter. If building an underground shelter, you may also need to provide clearance for electrical, water and septic lines. 

    The building permit should be obtained by the contractor, property owner or design professional. You, the homeowner, will not have to apply for a permit on your own unless installing the shelter yourself. 

    Steps to building a storm shelter

    First, assess what kind of shelter is best for you. Think about the kinds of storms, your budget, accessibility needs, and amount of space provided to build your shelter. 

    Next, find a trusted contractor to follow FEMA guidelines when designing your shelter. When building and installing your shelter, make sure it meets your needs. 

    If you have a basement, you can install a shelter there. One inexpensive type of shelter is the lean-to, which is built in the corner of your basement. You can also install a pre-made safe room, bolted securely to the foundation of the house. 

    If you have a slab-on-grade house, built on a concrete slab with no basement, the concrete foundation must be thickened where you plan to install a storm shelter. Wood-frame shelters can be built out of bathrooms or closets or added to the garage as well. 

    External shelters, built as additions outside your house, must be built with materials like concrete to withstand the impact of potential flying debris, rain, and driving winds. All shelters should have walls and ceilings of their own. That way, even if the rest of the house is damaged, the shelter will still stand. 

    Underground or in-ground shelters are easier to install in new houses and can be designed to fit in the garage or closet. If the ground level of your house is below the flood level or level of storm surge, it is not a safe location to build a shelter. You may need to build an elevated shelter instead. 

    After your shelter has been built, time to fill it with things you may need during an emergency. Make a storm checklist to determine what supplies to stock up on. 

    Requirements for a storm shelter

    A faulty storm shelter is a tragedy waiting to happen. Take care to ensure your safe room is built properly. To help with this, the International Code Council (ICC) and National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) have put together a standard for proper storm shelter design called the ICC 500. 

    FEMA requires storm shelter door manufacturers to obtain ICC 500 certification for their products. This ensures that storm shelter doors and other components for building a shelter have been tested to withstand impact from debris and pressure changes from the wind. 

    FEMA offers many additional resources on their website as well. For example, FEMA P-320: Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building or Installing a Safe Room for Your Home is a free publication that outlines ways to evaluate storm risk and how to plan and build a safe room. FEMA P-361: Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms recommends best practices for the designing and construction of safe rooms. 

    To look for a trusted contractor or manufacturer to build your storm shelter, check that they are a member of the NSSA. Members must follow strict guidelines to ensure their products are stormproof. 

    Items to keep in your storm shelter

    Though a violent storm sometimes lasts for only a few minutes, it is possible you may need to take shelter for an extended period. Particularly massive storms can do considerable damage to your house and the community around you. It is vital to put together an emergency preparedness kit, which you can keep in your storm shelter or a nearby interior room

    Food items to keep in your storm shelter

    Make sure your storm shelter is stocked with food and water to last each person in your household several days to a week. 

    Non-perishable food, like canned soups, canned fish and canned fruits and vegetables are always a good option. Just remember to bring a can opener! 

    Ready-to-eat meals and prepackaged foods like crackers, peanut butter, granola bars, cereal, nuts, jerky, and dried fruits are reliable sources of protein and vitamins. Plus, non-perishable foods will last for a long time on the shelf. If you have pets, stock up on their food as well. 

    Keep at least one gallon of water per person (including any pets) per day in your shelter. Sports drinks, like Gatorade, can also provide electrolytes and hydration. 

    Emergency items 

    Aside from food, consider other essentials for survival. A first aid kit will be useful for treating injuries and should include bandages, gauze, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic wipes, painkillers, a thermometer, and tweezers. Any prescription medication you or a family member might need should also be included in your first aid kit. 

    To keep warm, stock your storm shelter with blankets and coats, changes of clothing and durable shoes. You can also keep a helmet to protect your head from debris. 

    Next, consider how you will stay clean if you need to remain in your shelter for an extended period. Stock up on sanitizer, toilet paper, tissues, and trash bags. A separate water jug for washing your hands is an option too. 

    Other items 

    A battery-powered radio, battery-powered lantern, flashlights, extra batteries, a generator, or portable battery to charge your devices, and cell phone charger are important for staying connected with the outside world. In case of debris in the air, pollen masks or dust masks will help you breathe. 

    Other items that may come in handy include a Swiss army knife, a wrench, rope, or duct tape. If you have personal items like glasses, try to keep an extra pair in your shelter too. Consider bringing paper, pens or pencils, a deck of cards, a board game, books, or other means of entertainment to help you wait out the storm. 

    Finally, keep track of personal items, such as your wallet, medical papers, and important documents like your home deed, tax documents, and other personal documents that you would need to protect. If you have valuable items, like jewelry or family heirlooms, storing them in your storm shelter can keep them safe from the elements. 

    Staying safe out here 

    Violent weather can be unpredictable, which is why preparedness is so important.  

    Looking for a prebuilt saferoom? Take some time to research these shelters offered here at Tractor Supply. No matter what shelter you choose, safety comes first. By being aware of what storms you may face and having a place to shelter, you can be all the readier to wait out any storm.