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How to Build an Above Ground Tornado Shelter

As climate change continues to cause more and more freak storms across the United States and the world, it’s more important than ever for families to have an emergency plan, and even more importantly, a shelter to take refuge in. An above ground tornado shelter that follow FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) guidelines is one of the best options to keep your family safe.

You need an above ground tornado shelter when you see something like this

Read on to learn more about building an above ground tornado shelter, and how to get the construction project going.

What is an Above Ground Tornado Shelter?

An above ground tornado shelter is more or less exactly what it sounds like: a tornado shelter whose location is above ground. Tornado shelters used to all be in ground, but further research has proved the efficacy of above ground tornado shelters, as well.

“Storm shelter” and “tornado shelters” are pretty much used interchangeably, but there is an important difference. Storm shelter is the generic umbrella term for any construction meant to protect you from severe weather, including but not limited to tornados: think of hurricanes, flooding, and more.

You might come across the term “safe room” while researching tornado shelters. A safe room is a shelter that, if built according to FEMA guidelines, could also be a tornado shelter. Safe rooms are typically found within the home: they could even be traditional rooms like bathrooms or closets that have been reinforced and can double as safe rooms if needed.

In ground tornado shelters can be found outdoors, like in your backyard, or beneath your basement or garage. Above ground tornado shelters are only found outdoors and sometimes double as garden sheds—if they are above ground but indoors, they are usually referred to as safe rooms.

Why Do You Want an Above Ground Tornado Shelter?

In general, anyone living in tornado-prone zones—especially high-risk areas like the tornado alley in the American Midwest—should have some sort of tornado shelter. There is simply no safer place to be during a violent tornado. Unless your house is built out of reinforced concrete and steel, that windowless, internal bathroom is safer than your sunporch, but still won’t protect you from 200-mile-per-hour winds.

Some people might have the absurd idea to just keep an eye on the tornado, and if it seems to be moving towards your home, simply hop in the car and drive in the opposite direction.

This is a terrible idea.

I repeat: this is a terrible idea!

The worst place you can be during a tornado warning is out in the streets, with only your car as a barrier between yourself and the tornado. It doesn’t take being in the eye of a tornado for the wind to be strong enough to toss around heavy debris. Additionally, tornados change directions with mind boggling speed—so while you think you might be driving away from the tornado, the tornado could change course and overcome you in the blink of an eye.

By this point, I hope you’ve understood how important it is for people that live in tornado zones to have some sort of tornado shelter! You might think that the most logical location for said shelter to be underground, and that’s what most people believed for a long time. While in ground tornado shelters (if in accordance to FEMA guidelines) provide excellent shelter, researchers from the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University have found that the location of the shelter matters less than the engineering designs and materials used to build said shelter.

That means that carefully and intentionally built above ground tornado shelters are just as safe, and perhaps even safer than in ground tornado shelters because they also protect from non-tornado environmental hazards, like flooding. Additionally, it is easier for the entrance to an in ground tornado shelter to be blocked by stacked debris, even with a stormproof door—this is less likely to happen with an above ground tornado shelter.

How to Build an Above Ground Tornado Shelter

The first thing to understand when building an above ground tornado shelter is that amateurs (and really anyone without professional construction experience) are highly discouraged from attempting to build their own shelters. The building will most likely include pouring reinforced concrete, building a frame, and using reinforced concrete blocks, fiberglass, welded solid steel, and more. Your best bet to have an above ground tornado shelter that follows FEMA guidelines exactly is either purchasing a pre-built shelter from a reputable company and having it delivered straight into your backyard, or hiring professionals who will use the FEMA designs and guidelines found here.

The entire process from start to finish will look something like this:

  1. Create a budget
  2. Decide on a location
  3. Hire professionals
  4. Consider building a temporary shelter to use as a backup while the project is ongoing

You might notice that these high-level guidelines are similar to the ones we give for building an in ground tornado shelter—that’s because the difficulty of the project requires similar steps and considerations.

Let’s dive into each step more thoroughly:


Before you even start thinking about the cost of materials, you should look into getting the correct building permit and licenses for the construction project. The biggest mistake you can make is spending money on a shelter that you later find out isn’t even allowed to be there, and must be removed. You’ll find that certain counties and states have different rules, and you want to make sure you are following the appropriate codes!

Now comes the time for actual budgeting. You should know from the start that building an above ground tornado shelter (or any serious storm shelter for that matter) is expensive, and you should see it as an investment into your family’s safety.

The inside of a tornado shelter

Prices can range from $3000 for premanufactured tornado shelters to $15000 or more if you prefer to have it customized to your specific wants (though the delivery and installation of premanufactured tornado shelters could easily reach $15000, too).

If building your above ground tornado shelter a la carte, one of the first things you should include in your budget is a stormproof door, which is built to withstand high-velocity wind and the impact and weight of flying debris. Stormproof doors are expensive but absolutely vital. Unfortunately, there are accounts of people getting injured or even losing their life in tornado shelters that remained standing, but whose door was ripped off. Stormproof doors also open inwards in order to not trap you inside if the debris piles up against it.

If the budget is starting to look a little out of reach, I advise you to look into funding grants from FEMA. through which you might be able to get some reimbursements for money spent on building tornado shelters.

Choosing a Location

Now that you’ve decided on a budget, it’s time to decide where to build your above ground tornado shelter. Assuming your county leaves you with more than one option for where to locate the project, here are some things you should consider:

  • Distance from your residence: According to FEMA guidelines, the tornado shelter should be more than 150 feet from your home.
  • Surrounding construction and vegetation: Don’t build it where it might get buried under fallen trees, or compromised by electricity lines.
  • Flooding: Consider getting a geological analysis of your backyard—if the water table is very high, you might be at risk for flooding.
  • Accessibility: Is the location you’re choosing easy to access for every member of your family? This is important especially if you have people with physical disabilities, like being constrained to a wheelchair.
  • Space: You should keep in mind how many people will be taking shelter in the above ground tornado shelter, because this will also determine where you have enough space to build a shelter to accommodate that number.

Hiring Professionals to Build Your Above Ground Tornado Shelter

Now that you’ve got a budget and a place picked out, it’s time to hire someone you trust to do the heavy lifting of building the actual above ground tornado shelter. A quick look online yields an overwhelming number of contractors and professionals, and it might seem hard to make such an important decision.

Allowing professionals to construct an above ground tornado shelter for you is the best plan

I advise you consult the NSSA (National Storm Shelter Association) website, where you can find guidance and a list of verified producers and installers who will build in accordance to FEMA guidelines and use materials that have passed debris impact testing requirements.

DIY Above Ground Tornado Shelters

I hope I’ve made it clear at this point that unless you have professional construction experience, you should not attempt to build your own permanent tornado shelter. One of the many reasons for this is that your materials have not been tested for durability against high-velocity debris impact.

Tornado shelters, however, take time to build, and so you could consider building a temporary tornado shelter as a backup plan until it the permanent one is complete. Here are two ways you could do this:

  • Build a small room with hollow concrete blocks reinforced with rebar threaded vertically through the holes. Make sure they are filled with quick-dry cement, and themselves cemented to the foundation. Use a stormproof door. Check out how this man did it in this YouTube video.
  • Build a small room with thick, sturdy wooden walls and ceiling, bolt it to a cement foundation, and also use a stormproof door. Check out how it was done similarly here.

Wrapping Up How to Build an Above Ground Tornado Shelter

I hope this post has inspired you to build your own above ground tornado shelter—but remember that by “build your own: I mean oversee the construction carried out by professionals, and perhaps building a temporary shelter yourself to have as backup until the end of the project.

If you are also considering an in ground tornado shelter, see this guide to How to Build an In Ground Tornado Shelter.