FEMA and Texas Tech Develop in-house Tornado Shelter, or "Safe Room"

August 20, 1998 -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has unveiled a major initiative involving in-home tornado shelters or "safe rooms." The agency's director, James L. Witt, made the announcement at the National Tornado Forum convened in Washington this week to identify measures to increase protection from the hazards of tornadoes.

A joint project with the Wind Engineering Research Center of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, design specifications for a "safe room" are included with the 25-page illustrated FEMA publication, Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House. Advance copies of the publication, which provides detailed planning and construction guidelines, including plans and cost estimates, were released at the National Tornado Forum.

"Having a shelter, or safe room built into a home can help protect people and families from injury or death caused by the dangerous force of extreme winds," Witt said. "When constructed according to the plans, the safe room can provide protection against winds of up to 250 miles per hour and projectiles travelling at 100 miles an hour."

Taking Shelter from the Storm draws on 25 years of field research by researchers at Texas Tech's Wind Engineering Research Center, including studies of the performance of buildings following dozens of tornadoes throughout the United States and laboratory testing on the performance of building materials and systems when impacted by airborne debris.

The safe room project is part of an ongoing FEMA initiative to encourage people to take measures to protect themselves and their property before disasters occur. With the dramatic increase in the number of deadly tornadoes this year, FEMA has accelerated the development of effective strategies that federal agencies, states, communities and individuals can pursue to protect people and reduce damages from these severe storms.

The in-home "safe room" project was initiated following numerous requests by state and local emergency management officials and by persons whose homes were either destroyed or significantly damaged by tornadoes and hurricanes for guidance on how to incorporate a safe room into the reconstruction of storm-damaged homes.

Whether an individual family should consider building a "safe room" in their house depends on a number of factors, including: location in high-risk area; how quickly safe shelter can be reached during extreme winds; level of safety desired; and the cost of a building a shelter, Witt said.

Taking Shelter from the Storm will help homeowners decide how best to protect themselves and their families. The section on understanding the hazards defines and illustrates the categories of damage caused by tornadoes and hurricanes, and provides a risk assessment worksheet for the homeowner using wind zone charts and maps. It also details emergency planning and assembling an emergency supply kit.

The planning section outlines the basis of shelter design including size, retrofitting in existing houses, foundation types and location within the house. In addition, construction plans, materials, and construction cost estimates are detailed for a variety of situations.

The National Tornado Forum, which is being held in Washington, D.C., Aug. 18 - 19, is focusing on increasing the safety of residential structures, including manufactured housing, and improving tornado-warning systems. The Forum is bringing together officials from FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Also participating in the Forum are representatives of state agencies in tornado-prone states; wind engineering researchers; and representatives of the homebuilding and manufactured housing industries. The National Forum follows-up a regional tornado forum convened by FEMA in Atlanta, Ga., last April.

Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House, FEMA Publication 320 (booklet and construction plans), will available through FEMA Publications (1-800-480-2520) in October 1998. The publication also will be available on the FEMA website (http://www.fema.gov) soon thereafter.