Shelter From the (Next) Storm

By now, most of us are weary veterans of hurricane evacuations. Given the difficulty of decamping – especially for elderly residents – more and more people are deciding to “ride out” future storms.

One alternative available for folks living outside of flood zone or storm surge areas is a reinforced in-house safe room. Safe rooms are a structurally reinforced step beyond the “interior-room-without-a-window” that can provide protection against both hurricanes and tornados. The key to a well-built safe room is connection – the roof is securely anchored to the walls, the walls to each other, and the foundation to the frame. Reinforced doors and a ventilation source round out the package.

The LSU Agricultural Extension Center’s demonstration house located in Baton Rouge contains a working model of a modified (non-FEMA standard) safe room.

The walk-in sized master bedroom closet was installed with upgraded anchors, sheathing, fasteners and doors that are designed to resist 150-mph wind. The LAHouse is open to the public (click here for hours of operation) and free information is available on all of the features, materials and methods that were used in the construction.

Safe rooms can be installed as an interior retro-fit, a reinforced home addition or a separate structure. FEMA publication 320, Taking Shelter from the Storm, includes information and plans for an in-residence shelter. FEMA 320 can be viewed on-line or ordered free by calling 888-565-3896.

Commercially manufactured shelters are also available (Google “hurricane safe room” for websites). Shelters which have been successfully tested for debris impact resistance by Texas Tech are listed on the “Tested Shelters” page.

Most homes that are built on a concrete slab are suitable for a safe room retrofit. Existing windowless rooms within the home, such as closets, bathrooms and utility rooms are good candidates. Material costs for an 8’x8′ room are usually less than $2500, including door and hardware. Raised homes are not as easily retrofitted, however, a shelter which doubles as a windowless mud room, study, etc. can be built adjacent to the home.

Homeowners who receive a disaster assistance loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to repair or rebuild a damaged or destroyed home may use some of the loan proceeds to construct a safe room. The SBA can also increase the approved disaster loan by up to 20 percent to cover the cost of adding a safe room. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing mortgage insurance to enable homebuyers to borrow up to $5,000 to create windstorm shelters in their homes.

This blog was written for Paul LaGrange’s BuildWrite website and was originally posted on May 22, 2009.

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