Safe Rooms Save Lives

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

I had been in Oklahoma City (OKC) for just over a week. It was 1995. Spring, a time for rebirth, was put on hold and buried beneath crumbled concrete and shattered lives. Many of us had gone in to cover the aftermath of the bombing at the Murray Federal Building. Crews and reporters had been rotating in and out since the horrific April 19th attack.

By now, April had turned to May. The seventh was a quiet Sunday. We were staffing the CNN workspace in case there were any developments on the bombing. But the story that day centered more on the weather. The local stations were reporting that the atmosphere was ripe for supercells. They were right.

By midafternoon, bulletins were coming in of a half-mile-wide tornado on the ground west of Ardmore, a city one hundred miles to the south of OKC. This tornado dissipated after killing an elderly man and injuring several other people.  But this supercell wasn’t done. It recycled and a second tornado, just as big, dropped out of the sky crossing the Red River and heading toward Ardmore.

We were nearly two hours away, but there was no question we had to go. This could be really bad. I had chased plenty of hurricanes over the years but never a tornado. I kept scanning the landscape around us, half believing that I’d see one suddenly appear. I remember as we drove south thinking just how strange the clouds looked and that the colors were an eerie cotton candy—unlike any I’d seen in Florida.  A Michelin tire factory had reportedly been hit hard, and we headed there first. Of course, by the time we arrived, the tornado was gone. The tornado also damaged some nearby buildings on the outskirts of Ardmore but lifted up just before it reached the heart of the city. They were fortunate that day. Combined the two tornadoes were on the ground for about a combined sixty miles.

Fast forward twenty years, and I’m suddenly connected back to that Spring in OKC. Pataya Scott, a PHD candidate at Texas Tech University told me growing up in Oklahoma City she had spent, “lots of time in a closet under the stairs.” Pataya was one of several brilliant University students at the FLASH Annual Conference giving presentations on their work in various fields of disaster mitigation.

These students were studying roofing systems, human behavior and response before and after disasters, communications, and hurricane winds. Pataya is studying the devastating 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. She explained, “I’ll be looking at remote sensing data on damage from the Joplin tornado so things like aerial photos, drive by photos, and Google street views seeing the level of damage for each building. So, it’s going to take a lot of time analyzing all those six thousand documented damaged buildings.”

On the ground for twenty-two miles and thirty-eight minutes, the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado killed nearly 160 people. Pataya is focusing on construction, wind direction, materials, and architecture; and is determining what kind of buildings hold up better, for instance homes with attached garages and those without.

“Two story buildings area usually more robust so they’re going to do a little better than one story, but how much better is what I’m going to see,” she says. Pataya is just now finishing up the database. Time to start answering the questions!

In listening to Pataya’s work, I was immediately struck by how far the disaster mitigation movement has come in twenty years. Sure, there was talk about it back in 1995, three years after Hurricane Andrew. That storm was the wake-up call. But today, mitigation addresses all perils.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling has spent a lifetime studying tornado mitigation. Shelters are his expertise. “I would have thought in terms of storm shelters we’d be a little further along,” he says, “But overall, I’m grateful for the progress.  We’ve taken a lot of steps, lots of small steps.  We’re getting there.”

As we ramp up toward the height of tornado season, Kiesling says it’s a double edged sword. “We worry about the vulnerability of communities, but also take heart that there is an increase in interest in tornado shelters and improved construction. So, there’s good news and bad news with that because we certainly see with every major tornado an uptick in public consciousness of safety and increased sales in storm shelters and better readiness for the future.”

However, he warns that not all that glitters is gold. Consumers need to carefully consider what they are getting when purchasing a shelter. “There are excellent products available, but there’s also a lot of stuff that’s not good on the market. We have a real problem in quality control and requiring standard compliance, and it’s not a regulated industry.”

Back in 1995, the people of Ardmore were very fortunate. They got lucky. But today, science, engineering, and public awareness is finally beginning to remove luck from the equation. As Dr. Kiesling says, “we’re doing pretty darn well.”

Related Links 

Community Tornado Shelter “Absolutely Saved Lives” in Alabama 

Tale of Two Homes – Tornado 

New Videos from the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)® Meet Demand for Tornado Safe Room Information

Nonprofit releases “Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You?” video series in conjunction with America’s PrepareAthon! national readiness campaign

(Tallahassee, FL)— According to tornado watch data from the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center, nearly 90% of U.S. counties experienced tornado watches between 2004 and 2013, for an average of 27 watch hours per year. In response to increased interest in tornado safe rooms driven by this pattern, as well as recent, deadly outbreaks, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) today released new videos highlighting five of the most common tornado safe room choices.

FLASH, FEMA, and Portland Cement Association developed the video series in response to consumer desire to better understand their tornado safe room options. The series, “Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You?”, provides comparative information on cast-in-place, concrete block masonry, insulated concrete forms, precast concrete, and wood-frame safe rooms.

“Today’s marketplace offers an unprecedented range of high-performing, affordable options to save lives and preserve peace of mind for the millions of families in the path of severe weather,” said FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “These videos will help families understand their options for a properly built safe room that will deliver life safety when it counts.”

The new video series is offered in conjunction with America’s PrepareAthon!, an opportunity for individuals, organizations, and communities to come together and prepare for specific hazards through drills, group discussions, and exercises. April 30 is National PrepareAthon! Day, a day to take action in advance of natural hazards, including tornadoes.

To find out more about tornado safe rooms visit

Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)® Highlights Tornado Safety and Technology to Help Protect Families in Harm’s Way

As nearly uninterrupted severe weather threats continue following tornado destruction last week through today, the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) is highlighting critical actions that will help families and homes survive when tornadoes or severe storms strike.

• The ultimate life safety protection is a tornado safe room. Tested and certified tornado safe rooms protect families from winds and windborne debris up to 250 mph. The rooms can be built or retrofitted into closets or bathrooms inside the home or placed outside in a garage or shed. Additionally, a range of pre-fabricated safe room options can be purchased and installed inside or outside the home. From affordable egg-shaped bunkers to above-ground rooms made from concrete, panelized steel or Kevlar, families now have many ways to survive even the strongest tornadoes.

“Tornado safe rooms save lives, even when EF4 or EF5 tornadoes strike,” said FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “Some of the families who survived the Texas and Oklahoma tornado outbreaks have proved that yet again, and we want all families in harm’s way to know and understand their life-saving potential.”

A tested and certified safe room can add to a home’s value as well. According to a 2007 study by Professor Kevin Simmons, an economist with Austin College, sales prices increased 3.5 percent on average for homes with a safe room, or approximately $4,200.

Tornado safe room information, including a cost calculator, structural details and resource links are available at

• For less than half the cost of a traditional NOAA weather radio, new life-saving smartphone apps provide severe weather alerts that are faster, cheaper and more portable. Families need to know right away when they are under a tornado watch or warning, especially at night. The new FLASH Weather Alerts app reliably delivers GPS, precision text-to-speech weather hazard warnings on more than 100 options from tornado to flood to wildfire and more.

“Often, surviving a deadly tornado comes down to a matter of seconds,” said Chapman-Henderson. “We are proud to partner with the country’s premier weather data provider to offer this powerful, easy-to-use app that combines new technology with real-time severe weather information. The audible warning feature gives families the advantage of every available second to take shelter. This is especially urgent at night because nocturnal tornadoes are historically the deadliest.”

During 2013 tornado events, the FLASH Weather Alerts app provided severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service nearly 20 minutes earlier than similar apps. FLASH Weather Alerts is now available from the Apple AppStore and Google Play store for $7.99 — less than the average $25.00 price of a traditional weather radio. Visit for more information.

• Most tornado damage occurs below EF4/EF5 level, so minor investments in enhanced building or rebuilding techniques can make a major improvement in a home’s resistance to tornado forces. The National Climatic Data Center estimates that 77 percent of U.S. tornadoes are in the EF0 to EF1 range and 95 percent have wind speeds less than EF3 intensity. A recent cost study revealed that using an average of $0.50 per square foot or $1,000 in metal connectors installed from a home’s roof to its foundation can upgrade a home’s ability to withstand wind uplift from an EF0 to an EF2 tornado.

Additionally, homes built to more modern, model codes will have the advantage of enhanced connector methods using nailing. For example, the 2009 International Residential Code requires only two toe-nailed connections on the rafter to top plate compared to the 2012 International Residential Code which requires a minimum of a third toe-nailed connection. The cost of using the third nail is less than $100 for an entire roof, but the increased uplift strength grows by 50 percent.

“Many will be surprised to learn that homes can be built to withstand damage from EF0 to EF2 tornadoes which historically cause most of the damage,” said Chapman-Henderson. “A modest investment of a handful of additional nails or metal connectors can strengthen homes and protect families from needless injuries, death and property damage from tornadoes. We believe this makes a clear case for prompt and continuous adoption and enforcement of model building codes.”

“Tornado safe rooms, enhanced weather alerting technology and better building practices mean that we no longer need to be at the mercy of tornadoes,” said Chapman-Henderson. “This is an important message as the nation witnesses the devastation of this past week, the massive tornado now ravaging the Oklahoma City metro area and the expected severe weather ahead.”