When the twister comes, where will you be that’s safe?

By: Terry Sheridan, FLASH Consumer Blogger

Ricky Knox knew the EF-5 tornado was coming even before he saw it. Five minutes later, it hit his community near Huntsville, Ala.

“My son and I were talking and looking out the back door. I asked him to be quiet a minute and I could hear that thing – just like a train – coming,” he says.

Knox, his wife, son and mother climbed down into the tornado shelter that had been installed below the garage floor just three weeks before. Huddled down, knees bumped up to the next person’s feet, they waited.

“I knew we were in for it when my ears popped,” Knox says. “Not like when you’re on a plane but like snapping your fingers or breaking sticks next to your ears.” The family could hear the garage and house coming apart above them.

When they emerged 30 minutes later, their home was demolished and someone’s four-ton air-conditioner had blown into what had been the kitchen.

But the Knox family was unhurt and safe.

Knox offers these suggestions in considering a shelter:

  • Certified shelters and safe rooms can be built above- or below ground so if you have elderly family members or friends who may have difficulty entering a below-ground shelter, convert a bigger closet into a “safe room.”
  • Be sure you have rain ponchos because tornadoes often bring torrential downpours and you very likely won’t have a roof over your head when you leave the shelter.
  • Register with local emergency officials and alert neighbors so they know you’ll be in the shelter.
  • Take a cell phone with you but make sure you’ve got reception. Knox climbed down into his shelter, shut the overhead door and tested his phone. And it did work.
  • Have battery-powered lights and water in the shelter.
  • Do a practice run with your family.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling, an engineer and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA), cautions that many people don’t understand that storm shelters must meet more rigorous building standards than a home because of wind pressures and debris impact.

Shelters designed to NSSA standards can endure wind pressures six or seven times greater than a typical building, Kiesling says. Building codes generally require that a non-shelter building withstand 90 to 100 mph winds. Shelters are designed to take 250 mph winds – the worst-case scenario.

Above- and below-ground shelters vary in size, can be steel or concrete, and costs range from about $3,000 to $8,000. (Knox’s shelter cost $6,500.) Your contractor may need to obtain a building permit prior to installing the shelter.

Sound complicated? It is. That’s why you should consult with an engineer who understands shelter requirements, and a contractor who builds to NSSA standards.

Find more shelter information at www.nssa.cc and http://www.flash.org/peril_tornadoes.php.

Editor’s Note:  FLASH President & CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson is speaking at the National Tornado Summit on Monday, February 10.  To learn more, visit tornaodsummit.org. Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has more than 30 years of experience in reporting and editing for newspapers in the Chicago and Miami areas. She covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 in South Florida, and has experienced damage to her own homes from two hurricanes. She now lives in New Hampshire.

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