Safe Rooms for Tornado Survival

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Tornadoes – a Destructive Force of Nature

Safe Rooms

Photo FEMA public domain

Tornadoes and hurricanes are among the most destructive forces of nature. Unfortunately, these types of wind storms continue to cause injury and death to people who are unable to safely evacuate or find shelter from these events.

The National Weather Service did not start keeping organized records of tornadoes in the United States until 1950. Since then, the deadliest year for tornadoes was 2011, which claimed 553 lives. The single deadliest tornado to date was in Joplin, MO, on May 22, 2011, with 161 fatalities.

Compared with hurricanes and earthquakes, single tornado events typically affect smaller geographical areas but occur more often and cause more deaths. From 1950 through 2011, tornadoes caused about 5,600 fatalities in the United States, more than hurricanes and earthquakes combined over the same time period (NIST 2014).

Tornado Resistant Building Codes

FEMA has long supported the development of hazard-resistant codes and standards by assessing how structures respond in a disaster. Assessment conclusions and recommendations are applied through active participation in the process of creating and developing building codes and standards, including the Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters, known as ICC 500.

Safe house


The most cost-effective way to design and construct a safe room is to include it in a new building. The cost of retrofitting an existing building (or portion thereof) is higher due to the additional design and construction constraints.

In new construction, the safe room is often built in the basement. The likelihood of wind-borne debris entering the basement is lower than for above-ground spaces; however, a basement safe room should still be designed to resist the extreme wind pressures that an above-ground safe room would need to resist. If you plan to add a basement safe room as a retrofitting project, keep the following in mind:

  • You must be able to clear out an area of the basement large enough for the safe room.
  • Unless the exterior basement walls contain adequate reinforcement as shown on the design drawings provided with this publication, these walls cannot be used as safe room walls because they are not reinforced to resist damage from wind-borne debris and extreme winds uplifting the home’s floor structure above.
  • Exterior basement walls that are used as safe room walls must not contain windows, doors, or other openings in the area providing protection unless they are protected with an appropriate protective device or are designed to resist the debris impact and pressure associated with safe room design.
  • The roof of the safe room must be designed to resist the wind pressures and debris impact forces.
  • Just as the walls and roof of a safe room are designed and built to protect against extreme winds and wind-borne debris, so must the safe room door and assembly. Only door assemblies designed and tested to resist debris impacts and wind pressures can provide near-absolute life-safety protection.
  • Some manufacturers produce and install prefabricated safe rooms.


Billie Nicholson, editor
April 2015 



What is Civil Defense? Surviving a Nuclear Attack

600px-United_States_Civil_Defense_Roundel.svgBe Prepared for a Nuclear Disaster

Civil Defense is the organized non-military effort to prepare Americans for nuclear military attack. Over the past twenty years the term and training has been replaced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. Established in 1979 and absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003,1   the focus has shifted to protection against terrorism to create a safer, more secure America. This federal government organization provides the coordinated federal response in the event of a terrorist attack. According to their website, they are tasked with coordinating a response to any large natural disaster or other emergency event to  facilitate a swift and effective recovery effort.2 Examples of their work include restoration along the East and Gulf Coast following hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Their biggest strengths lie in an ability to unify the effort, find the needed assets to solve a problem and eventually get the work

A big question remains. What if someone slips through the layers of surveillance and security and launches a “nuclear attack”?  What do we do?

What Happens in a Nuclear Disaster?

There are six types of nuclear disasters: dirty bombs, nuclear plant meltdowns, fallout from another country’s atomic bomb explosion, a singular nuclear strike in the US, a suitcase nuke, and all out war. There are three parts to nuclear explosions: the explosion with its initial bright flash of light and heat as mega tons of energy are released accompanied in a few seconds by a debris-filled pressure wave followed by alpha, beta and gamma radiation or chemical dust also know as fallout.  If you see a bright flash, don’t run to the window to see what’s coming next. It will be the shattering glass from the window you’re looking out.

Your first response should be duck and cover. Find the closest solid structure and duck down, covering your head with your arms. If there is no structure near, lay flat on the ground, face down. Stay down for at least 30 seconds.3 A blast wave and wind traveling at the speed of sound or about 5 seconds per mile will follow. A huge blast may cause temporary blindness resulting in disorientation. When you can, move to a protected place that is not damaged. Immediately cover your nose and mouth with an article of clothing to reduce the chance of breathing in smoke or radioactive dust.  Stay away from windows because the blast wave will blow out windows and some walls. Gamma rays travel so fast you can’t avoid them. Anyone within one thousand feet of a detonation will most likely be killed. If you survived, get inside. Once inside, remove your outer layer of clothing and shower and wash your hair as soon as possible. Discard all these items. This will remove up to 90% of contaminants. If you develop nausea and vomiting within 4 hours after the blast, chances are you have permanent damage. There are some medical processes that can help if you can get to a location offering them.

After the blast, the fallout is deadly.  Get as far inside a structure as possible and have as much material above you as possible to block the beta radiation. Dust contaminated with radiation will be everywhere. Below ground shelters are best if they are three feet below the surface. Dust will travel with the prevailing winds. The majority of contamination will have fallen in three days. When you are ready to evacuate, cover as much of you as possible. Use a mask, gloves and wear eye protection. Duct tape your sleeves and pant legs. Remove and discard this clothing before reentering a shelter. If you travel, go in a perpendicular direction to the wind flow. Begin to take iodine tablets immediately to prevent thyroid damage. The non-radioactive iodine saturates the thyroid gland so it can’t absorb radioactive iodine. If you don’t have tablets, apply betadine to the skin of your abdomen and arms for 3-5 days. Stored food and water will be critical. Make sure you have some.4







Additional Articles in the April 2014 Issue:

  • A reminder to review and rotate three types of items in your 72 hour emergency kit.
  • What are your plans to provide protein in your diet in an emergency situation? Here are some items to add to your supplies …
  • Are members of your family hearing impaired that might not hear a smoke alarm?
  • Our featured contributor this month is Tess Pennington of She shares an article about Bio Mass Briquettes. Now you’ll have an environmentally friendly use for those shredded documents.
  • Sun Ovens are a perfect partner for bio mass briquettes, here’s how …
  • Some of our friends have complained that their yards were so shady that they doubted they could grow anything in a garden. In answer to their questions, here are some plants that can be grown in shade. Don’t give up on your yard either. Read more …
  • Speaking of gardening, do you use Epsom salts? Here’s why.
  • We can all be prepared to take the initiative to save a life, should we be faced with a life or death situation. Here are three critical first aid procedures that can be accomplished with one dressing.
  • Our Solar Chef has included a wonderful recipe for Solar Stuffed Shells. Give it a try, these are yummy.

 Billie Nicholson, Editor
April 2014


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