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Arkansas Living April 2012 : Page-18

by JOSEPHROITZ Tornado Shelters Make a Comeback s the wind roared and the sticks and leaves fl ew by, I stood at the back door and watched as my trees bent way over to the east, then way over to the west, and then way back over to A the east again. That’s when they started snapping and falling. My wife had stopped yelling at me to take cover. She had left me to my fate and was now in the bathtub with my daughter, praying. I’d tracked this particular tornado on Internet radar for perhaps an hour as it moved toward us from western Arkansas. When it came to severe weather, Roland, the little community where I live, had seemed charmed. Storms always took another path or were weakened by nearby Lake Maumelle. But this twister had a different track – one that led right at us. We didn’t know it, but that day, April 25, 2011, was the beginning of the largest torna-do outbreak ever recorded. During the next three days, 359 tornadoes were confirmed in 21 states, including four EF-5 tornados on the Enhanced Fujita scale (which ordinarily occur about once a year). In total, 322 people were killed by tornados and another 24 died from storm events such as straight-line winds or flooding. April 2011 set the all-time record for tor-nadoes in the United States. The 771 docu-18 mented twisters that month easily surpassed the old record of 552 from May 2003, and almost tripled the prior April record of 267 set in 1974. Born and raised in Arkansas, I always loved spring storms. But last spring, every night seemed to hold the dreadful promise of a killer tornado. It became normal to see Facebook posts from friends in storm shel-ters. I began to feel a little like I lived in Lon-don in World War II with nightly death fall-ing from the sky. My family and I escaped this storm un-hurt, although we lost many trees and our home was damaged. But, it made me wonder if having a bathtub as our “safe place” was re-ally adequate. Perhaps it was time, I thought, to install a storm shelter. Taking shelter from the storm For most of my life, my idea of a tornado shelter was based on my Granny’s old storm cellar. It was a concrete bunker, dark and fi lled with spiders and mysterious odors. But when there were tornado warnings, Mom and Dad would rush us over in the truck and we’d huddle underground by the light of a lantern until it was all clear. Fortunately, it appears that we’ve come a long way in tornado shelter design. The new designs,along with the record storm outbreak of last spring, have fueled sales of shelters. “There has defi nitely been more interest in tornado shelters in the last year than in the last three or four,” said Alisa Smith of Tor-nado Shelter Systems in Austin. “People are much more aware of the need.” Whether you’re a homeowner, a builder or an architect/engineer, the “bible” for safe room construction is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s publication “FEMA 320 – Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business.” Shelters built according to the FEMA 320 are designed to pass three tests based on actual tornado conditions: > A 250-mile-per-hour gust of wind for three seconds. > A 15-pound 2-inch by 4-inch board traveling horizontally at 100 miles per hour. > A 15-pound 2-inch by 4-inch board traveling vertically at 67 miles per hour. These are the criteria used by laborato-ries, such as those operated by Texas Tech University, for testing prefabricated shelters. They equate to “near-absolute” protection from any tornado up to and including an EF-4, which includes 99.9 percent of all docu-mented twisters. The FEMA 320 will help a homeowner evaluate his or her risk and choose the right protection for homes with basements, slabs or crawlspaces. But the real value is in the blueprint-quality drawings and specifications that include complete instructions, materials lists and notes for several different types of shelters. Qualifi ed do-it-yourselfers may find building a shelter based on these plans an APRIL 2012 National Weather Service

Tornado Shelters Make A Comeback

Joseph Roitz

As the wind roared and the sticks and leaves flew by, I stood at the back door and watched as my trees bent way over to the east, then way over to the west, and then way back over to the east again. That’s when they started snapping and falling.<br /> <br /> My wife had stopped yelling at me to take cover. She had left me to my fate and was now in the bathtub with my daughter, praying.<br /> <br /> I’d tracked this particular tornado on Internet radar for perhaps an hour as it moved toward us from western Arkansas. When it came to severe weather, Roland, the little community where I live, had seemed charmed. Storms always took another path or were weakened by nearby Lake Maumelle. But this twister had a different track – one that led right at us.<br /> <br /> We didn’t know it, but that day, April 25, 2011, was the beginning of the largest tornado outbreak ever recorded. During the next three days, 359 tornadoes were confirmed in 21 states, including four EF-5 tornados on the Enhanced Fujita scale (which ordinarily occur about once a year). In total, 322 people were killed by tornados and another 24 died from storm events such as straight-line winds or flooding.<br /> <br /> April 2011 set the all-time record for tornadoes in the United States. The 771 documented twisters that month easily surpassed the old record of 552 from May 2003, and almost tripled the prior April record of 267 set in 1974.<br /> <br /> Born and raised in Arkansas, I always loved spring storms. But last spring, every night seemed to hold the dreadful promise of a killer tornado. It became normal to see Facebook posts from friends in storm shelters. I began to feel a little like I lived in London in World War II with nightly death falling from the sky.<br /> <br /> My family and I escaped this storm unhurt, although we lost many trees and our home was damaged. But, it made me wonder if having a bathtub as our “safe place” was really adequate. Perhaps it was time, I thought, to install a storm shelter.<br /> <br /> Taking shelter from the storm<br /> <br /> For most of my life, my idea of a tornado shelter was based on my Granny’s old storm cellar. It was a concrete bunker, dark and filled with spiders and mysterious odors. But when there were tornado warnings, Mom and Dad would rush us over in the truck and we’d huddle underground by the light of a lantern until it was all clear.<br /> <br /> Fortunately, it appears that we’ve come a long way in tornado shelter design. The new designs, along with the record storm outbreak of last spring, have fueled sales of shelters.<br /> <br /> “There has definitely been more interest in tornado shelters in the last year than in the last three or four,” said Alisa Smith of Tornado Shelter Systems in Austin. “People are much more aware of the need.”<br /> <br /> Whether you’re a homeowner, a builder or an architect/engineer, the “bible” for safe room construction is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s publication “FEMA 320 – Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business.”<br /> <br /> Shelters built according to the FEMA 320 are designed to pass three tests based on actual tornado conditions:<br /> <br /> . A 250-mile-per-hour gust of wind for three seconds.<br /> <br /> . A 15-pound 2-inch by 4-inch board traveling horizontally at 100 miles per hour.<br /> <br /> . A 15-pound 2-inch by 4-inch board traveling vertically at 67 miles per hour.<br /> <br /> These are the criteria used by laboratories, such as those operated by Texas Tech University, for testing prefabricated shelters. They equate to “near-absolute” protection from any tornado up to and including an EF- 4, which includes 99.9 percent of all documented twisters.<br /> <br /> The FEMA 320 will help a homeowner evaluate his or her risk and choose the right protection for homes with basements, slabs or crawlspaces. But the real value is in the blueprint-quality drawings and specifications that include complete instructions, materials lists and notes for several different types of shelters.<br /> <br /> Qualified do-it-your selfers may find building a shelter based on these plans an attractive option. The cost can vary widely depending on the home and the design but could be as little as a few thousand dollars for materials.<br /> <br /> Above-ground shelters<br /> <br /> The old-fashioned storm cellar, so common across the Arkansas countryside for decades, is no longer the only option. For starters, you no longer have to go underground. One popular option is a prefabricated steel shelter that bolts to the concrete slab foundation of your home. These are popular with both homeowners and builders, and it’s clear why: They’re inside the structure, they’re quick to install, and they’re engineered to provide “near-absolute” protection. The cost, delivered and installed, starts at $4,000 and is based on size.<br /> <br /> Much of the protection of an above ground shelter isn’t because of the design of the shelter but rather its location. People are often reluctant to leave their homes for an outside cellar (especially when it’s raining) until the very last minute, when it can be extremely dangerous to be exposed to the storm. Most tornado deaths are caused by flying debris.<br /> <br /> “It’s not the wind that kills you, it’s what’s in the wind,” Smith said.<br /> <br /> For those with limited mobility, the easy access of an above-ground safe room may make it the only practical option. The refuge can be installed in the garage or elsewhere in an existing residence, or it can be installed during new construction. For structures that do not have a concrete slab foundation, such as a mobile home, a slab can be poured directly adjacent to the dwelling and the safe haven anchored to it.<br /> <br /> Many above-ground safe rooms also come wired for electrical connections, which is more difficult to do than with a below ground shelter. Having electric lights and a television or radio in the shelter may encourage you to take cover sooner. Just remember, there’s still a need for battery – or crank-powered – flashlights and radios when the power goes out.<br /> <br /> Built-in custom shelters<br /> <br /> Another option is a custom-built safe room, either retrofitted into existing construction or installed when the residence is built. Richard Harp, a Little Rock builder, said homeowners choose this option “because they want a more custom approach to use the space in a way that blends seamlessly into their plan … and if positioned and outfitted well, it could offer safety during a home invasion.”<br /> <br /> Harp said about 10 percent to 15 percent of the new homes he builds contain built-in safe rooms at a cost of between $7,000 and $10,000, depending on the size and the foundation of the house.<br /> <br /> Usually constructed of reinforced concrete, custom-built safe rooms can be any size or configuration and are often larger than the average prefabricated shelter that typically measures 4 feet by 6 feet or 4 feet by 8 feet. The room can be practically indistinguishable from the rest of the house, sometimes serving double duty as a walk-in closet in the master bedroom or a small study, Harp said.<br /> <br /> Interestingly, while these shelters appear to be a seamless part of the home, they’re actually not tied to it structurally. This design allows the house to totally blow away without placing stress and strain on the safe room, leaving it standing when everything else is gone. They are also more expensive than some other options.<br /> <br /> Below-ground shelters<br /> <br /> There’s nothing safer than being underground in a tornado. While offering the ultimate in protection from even the most powerful twister, modern subterranean sanctuaries hardly resemble your grandmother’s concrete bunker. They’re now available in shapes from domes to boxes and are made of non-traditional materials such as plastic and coated steel. They often include battery- powered lights and benches. Optional accessories might include a chemical toilet, carpeting or a telephone jack.<br /> <br /> Below-ground shelters can be one of the least expensive options for protecting your family, beginning at $2,000, but much depends on the design and the installation location. Unlike the old-fashioned cellars, the new below-ground shelters are no longer installed only outside. The least expensive route for an under-the-home shelter is installation during new construction, but some are designed to be retrofitted into existing garages. To do the retrofit, the concrete is cut, a hole is dug, the shelter is placed, the hole is filled, the concrete patched and the cars pulled back in.<br /> <br /> Outside of the residence, the location of the shelter is critically important. For quick access and to minimize the danger from flying debris, it should be located as close to the home as possible.<br /> <br /> Quick access is not the only factor in placing an underground shelter. There may be buried gas lines, telephone cables or other utilities in the way. And if the ground is mostly rock, installation costs can increase considerably. In these cases, homeowners may consider partially burying their shelter and then creating a bank of soil over the top. Also consider the water table in your area, and ask the dealer about the possibility of the shelter floating out of the ground or leaking, and how they prevent it.<br /> <br /> The door is the weak link in any shelter, but it’s especially important for below ground units that are more likely to be covered by fallen trees or wreckage. Doors that open outward are stronger, but also more likely to be blocked.<br /> <br /> Making the decision<br /> <br /> In making your decision, remember that any shelter is better than no shelter. FEMA classifies the entire state of Arkansas as a high-risk zone based on tornado frequency and wind strength. Arkansas ranks fourth in the nation in tornado deaths and fifth in injuries, but as many as four out of five Arkansas homes lack any protection other than interior rooms or hallways.<br /> <br /> Huddling in the hallway provides some protection from most twisters – but when it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. EF-3 and higher tornados make up only 6 percent of all tornadoes, but account for 75 percent of deaths. In an EF-3, the serious threat to life and limb begins as structures are ripped apart and few walls are left standing to provide protection from deadly flying debris. The probability of surviving without a shelter is low. In these punishing storms, proper protection can literally mean the difference between life and death. But even less potent storms can be deadly, and that’s why any Arkansan without a tornado shelter is simply playing the odds.<br /> <br /> Joseph Roitz is a freelance writer based in Roland.

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