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How to Build an In Ground Tornado Shelter

People who don’t live in tornado-prone areas like the American Midwest don’t realize just how real of a threat tornados are. Hiding in an internal bathroom in your house won’t be enough to protect you from serious tornado strikes—not when they can easily rip a house off its foundations, Wizard-of-Oz style. Residents of tornado zones, especially families, want a safe place that’s guaranteed to stick to its ground even in the strongest of winds and under the pressure of flying debris. In these situations, an in ground tornado shelter in accordance to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is a must-have.

Everything you need to know about in ground tornado shelters

Read on to learn more about the things you should be thinking about when considering the construction of an in ground tornado shelter, including how to budget for the expense. Unless you yourself have professional experience in construction, you should hire a professional to build the in ground tornado shelter for you—which is why we’ll also give you some ideas for building a temporary in ground tornado shelter while you wait for the final project.

What is an In Ground Tornado Shelter?

An in ground tornado shelter is a reinforced safe room built below ground for people to retreat to during severe weather conditions—or even man-made threats like bombs. The shelter should be able to withstand high-velocity winds and the impact of flying debris. In other words, a tornado shelter must remain standing even if your entire house is blown away, flattened, or ripped apart by a tornado.

An in ground tornado shelter is usually found in a backyard or beneath a garage. They are built out of reinforced steel or concrete, and their underground location will protect you from flying debris, which is actually the cause of more than half of storm injuries and deaths. It’s more likely you’ll be struck by a flying shard of metal than picked up and whisked away by a tornado.

Why Build an In Ground Tornado Shelter?

Every year tornados cause endless destruction and injuries across America. An in ground tornado shelter is ultimately the safest place for you and your family during any kind of tornado. It is your best bet to surviving serious tornadoes without injury and possibly even death.

The inside of an in ground tornado shelter

Most places in tornado zones have public tornado shelters, but the farther these shelters are from your home, the least safe it is for you to actually travel to them. So either you enter the public tornado shelters before the tornado gets bad—potentially wasting your time—or you decide to wait it out, and it no longer becomes safe to go outside by the time you decide you want the extra shelter.

A private in ground tornado shelter is optimal because it is easily accessible from your home. If it’s built beneath your garage, you don’t even have to leave your home to access it!

Some believe that modern, sturdier houses are built strongly enough to not need any additional safety rooms, but this is false. Unless your home was built out of solid reinforced steel, it will not withstand the power of an F4 or F5 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

How to Build an In Ground Tornado Shelter

The truth is that, as mentioned above, if you don’t have professional construction work experience, it is highly unadvisable for you to build your own concrete in ground tornado shelter. What you can do, however, is build a temporary shelter (better than nothing!) until the construction work is done.

The process should look somewhat like this:

  1. Create a budget
  2. Determine where to build
  3. Hire professionals
  4. Build a temporary shelter

Let’s go more in-depth into each step to building an in ground tornado shelter.

1. Create a Budget to Build an In Ground Tornado Shelter

Unfortunately, heavy-duty in ground tornado shelters (the only kind that will really protect you from a serious tornado) are going to be expensive. The cheapest option is to purchase a pre-fabricated tornado shelter and get it delivered to your house (you would still need to hire someone to install it), and even these usually cost at least $3000, not including delivery and installation.

This is the best option for individuals on a budget, without a construction background. If you’d rather build your shelter a la carte and oversee the construction yourself, then the first thing you should put in your budget is a storm shelter door. It can’t just be any door: it should be a steel door with serious hinges that opens inward instead of outward so that it can still be open if debris piles up on it outside. These doors are one of the most expensive things you’ll have to purchase for your in ground tornado shelter, but they are absolutely vital.

Next, start searching for local companies that build in ground tornado shelters with good reviews. Chances are they can come up with a rough estimate of what their services will cost you.

If the budget starts to get a little out of hand, I encourage you to look into funding grants from FEMA. You might be able to get a refund for spending that go towards building a tornado shelter that follows FEMA guidelines.

2. Determine Where to Build Your In Ground Tornado Shelter

Your budget is an important element to consider when deciding where to build your in ground tornado shelter. The cheapest option for building an in ground tornado shelter from scratch (not a prefabricated one) is to build it in your basement or garage.

If you cannot do this and instead want to build it outside of your house, then you’ll have to hire a geotechnical engineer to conduct a ground analysis. This will determine exactly what the best location is for your in ground tornado shelter, avoiding places with high water tables that could cause flooding, with solid bedrock that is very expensive to dig through, and where freezing soil will cause tension in the walls of the shelter. This analysis will save you time and money in the long run!

3. Hire Professionals

Now that you’ve decided the ideal location, the next step is to hire professionals that will build your in ground tornado shelter according to FEMA guidelines. FEMA provides safe room designs, instructions, and building code development guidelines which you and your contractors can find here and here.

FEMA has recommendations for safe in ground tornado shelters that you should check out

Make sure the people you hire follow the guidelines carefully, including:

  • that the tornado shelter shouldn’t be more than 150 feet away from the entrance of your home.
  • that the tornado shelter should be big enough for each member of your family to have 7 square feet of space.

In addition to a storm proof door mentioned above, they will most likely be using reinforced concrete, reinforced steel, solid steel, and fiberglass.

4. Build a Temporary Storm Shelter

You’ve done the responsible thing: you’ve got professionals on the way to start building a in ground tornado according to FEMA guidelines guaranteed to keep you as safe as possible during an F5 tornado. But the shelter, obviously, won’t be built in a day—so what happens if you’ve got tornado warnings coming at you in a couple of days, and your shelter isn’t ready yet?

It will feel good to know you have prepared an in ground tornado shelter if you ever look out the window and see this

If there isn’t an easily accessible public shelter near you, then the next best option is to build yourself a temporary in ground tornado shelter. This obviously won’t be as safe as the one done by professionals, but it’s better than nothing when you’re in a pinch. Here are two ideas:

  • Safe room in your basement: as mentioned above, the ideal safe room will stay grounded even if the rest of the house blows away, so you should make use of the parts of your house that are already built solidly, like your foundations. To that end, you can build a safe room in your basement and bolt it to the concrete ground and at least one foundational wall. In fact the best location would be a corner, so you can make use of two concrete walls. Whatever material you use to build the remaining walls, secure them with 14-gauge steel sheets.
  • Trash can storm shelter: This woman and her mother dug holes into cement ground large and deep enough to fit human-sized trash cans, and filled each trash can with pillows, a water bottle, and a helmet. This is a creative way to stay safe while waiting for a more secure solution. The fact that it’s in ground makes it safer than taking shelter in an any old room in your house, but remember that the lid of the trash can can easily be ripped off by high flying winds, or trapped shut by heavy debris.

Remember that these DIY tornado shelters are not guaranteed to keep you safe the way an in ground storm shelter built according to FEMA guidelines will—they should be built as a temporary measure in case you cannot reach a public tornado shelter.

Difference Between a Tornado Shelter and a Storm Shelter

Every different type of storm has its unique dangers, and not all storm shelters will keep you safe from every type of storm. That means you should carefully consider what storms are most likely to cause danger in your geographic location.

For example, in ground tornado shelters are one of the safest kinds of shelters for tornados, but they could become dangerous during a hurricane that causes flooding. Similarly, above ground storm shelters are safe from flooding, but they are more exposed to the full force of high velocity winds.

Because of this, it’s important to carefully consider exactly what kind of emergency you are building your shelter for, and then proceed in the most appropriate way.

Wrapping Up In Ground Tornado Shelters

I hope you are now inspired to start your own in ground tornado shelter to give your family the best protection during deadly tornados. For more advice on preparing for disasters, check out this Beginner’s Guide to Survival Food.