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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Storm shelter basics

STILLWATER, Okla. – The recent volatile and tragic spring storm season has plenty of Oklahomans thinking seriously about adding the extra protection of a shelter in their homes.

If you are in that crowd, keep in mind a shelter needs to provide adequate safety, account for your family’s needs and comfort and work well with your current residence, said Gina Peek, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension housing and consumer specialist. 

“When it comes to choosing a shelter you’ve got to know your family and your home,” Peek said. “How many people will use the shelter? Are you caring for someone with special needs or who requires extra attention? Do you live in a rural or urban area? Will digging directly underneath the house compromise the structure or utilities? All of these types of details will factor into your plans.”

And, of course, most of us cannot ignore cost. Not surprisingly, retrofitting an existing home typically is more expensive than incorporating a shelter as part of a new build. 

The good news is there is a workable option for just about every household. Shelters come in a range of sizes and can be constructed from variety of materials such as fiberglass, polyethylene, concrete and steel.

One option is to build a safe room designed per specifications outlined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the publication, “Taking shelter from the storm: Building a safe room for your home or small business,” or FEMA P-320.

“FEMA P-320 safe rooms can be built in the basement, on the primary level of your house or underground,” said Scott Frazier, OSU Extension energy management engineer. “No matter where you decide to build it, the idea is to create a room within a room or underground, with walls, floor and ceiling separate from the rest of the house.” 

Plans and materials list for FEMA P-320 safe rooms may be downloaded for free at www.fema.gov

Other viable shelters designed to meet the FEMA P-320 standards are available, as well. Although there is not a certifying agency for storm shelters, the National Storm Shelter Association and the American Tornado Shelter Association do provide recommendations for building the structures. 

Most people will rely on a contractor to construct their shelter, and consumers also can check to see if a particular company is a member of one or both associations.

“Once you settle on a contractor, discuss the project in detail with the company before the work starts. Make sure you understand exactly what’s going to happen,” Frazier said. “Shelters do come with warranties so be sure to ask about that aspect as well.”

After your shelter or safe room is completed, organize practice drills so family members know exactly what to do before the storm hits. The drills also can help people better deal with their issues with small confined spaces, and may be practiced as a game for small children.

Finally, be sure to register the location of your shelter with the appropriate county officials. If your county does not maintain a registry, give the information to a family member or friend, preferably someone who lives out-of-state, so they can alert authorities in the event of an emergency.  

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Oklahoma State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, State and Local Governments Cooperating: The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, or status as a veteran, and is an equal opportunity employer. 

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Leilana McKindra
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Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078
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