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May 11, 1999

FEMA Chief Urges Construction of Tornado "Safe Rooms"

Tornado safe room design plans available from FEMA
PATH sponsors FEMA Safe Room Demos in Tulsa

Washington May 11, 1999 -- James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is urging residents of tornado-prone areas to build a "safe room" in their homes that can provide protection against deadly tornadoes. Safe rooms also can provide protection against hurricanes and other extreme wind hazards.

"The deaths and devastation caused by the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas just last week are heartbreaking," Witt said. "While we can't stop tornadoes, we can build secure, easily accessible rooms in homes that can keep families safe from harm."

Witt noted that a safe room built in a home in Del City, Okla., last week saved the lives of homeowner Norma Bartlett, her daughter and four pets. Their neighborhood was completely destroyed and a nearby neighbor was killed during the storm. The Bartlett safe room is a cast-in-place concrete room that serves as a roomy closet, costing between $3,000 and $4,000. Some safe rooms can be built for as little as $2,000, depending on the size and location of the room. Construction costs can vary from one geographic area to another. Safe rooms can be built above ground or below, within a home or attached to one. Some are built of reinforced concrete and some are build with wood-and-steel walls anchored to concrete slab foundations or floors.

The Bartlett's safe room was built to design standards developed and published in a 25-page, illustrated FEMA publication, Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House, which outlines the basics of in-house safe room shelter design, including construction plans, materials and construction cost estimates. Safe rooms built to these specifications are designed to provide protect-ion from the forces of extreme winds as high as 250 miles-per-hour and the impact of flying debris.

FEMA developed Taking Shelter from the Storm in collaboration with the Wind Engineering Research Center of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. The safe room designs draw on 25 years of field research, including studies of the performance of buildings following dozens of tornadoes throughout the United States and laboratory testing on the performance of building materials and systems when impacted by airborne debris.

The safe room project is part of an ongoing FEMA initiative called Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities designed to encourage people and communities to take measures to protect themselves and their property before disasters occur.

In other safe room-related activities:

FEMA has sent its Building Performance Assessment Team, which includes structural engineers, wind engineers and building and roofing experts to Oklahoma and Kansas. The 18-member team will examine structures, including safe rooms, assessing the impact of the tornadoes on conventional construction, tornado-resistant construction and critical facilities. The team conducts "forensic engineering analyses" to determine causes of structural failure and successes and recommends actions to reduce future damage and protect lives and property from natural disasters.

The City of Tulsa, a FEMA-designated Project Impact community, is working with the Tulsa Home Builders Association to oversee the building of eight demonstration safe rooms, underwritten with part of a $50,000 grant through FEMA from PATH. The eight locations are geographically balanced for maximum exposure in the area, and there will be at least one safe room constructed with handicapped access. The Home Builders have agreed to oversee the demonstration program and to provide roughly a 50 percent match in services -- such as education, labor and materials, plus mentoring for amateur builders who build or renovate non-profit homes. Two of the safe rooms are nearly complete in two new houses that will be on display for the Tulsa Home Builders Parade of Homes June 5 - 13. In addition to Tulsa, the FEMA/PATH initiative will support the construction of safe room projects in Sioux City, IA,. North Sioux, SD and South Sioux City, NB. FEMA's Project Impact is a national effort that involves all segments of a community in assessing vulnerabilities and taking actions to reduce damage from natural disasters before they occur.

A workshop on building safe rooms, sponsored by State Farm Insurance, is set for June 3, 1999, in Tulsa, Okla., including a general session for the public and a technical session for builders. The instructor is Dr. Ernst Kiesling, a Texas Tech researcher who worked with FEMA on the Taking Shelter from the Storm publication and has devoted much of his life to perfecting safe room designs. The City is publicizing the safe room project and the training sessions with utility bill stuffers. Also the City will produce an educational video about safe room construction.

FEMA is beginning work on a design project for large shelters for protection from tornadoes, hurricanes and other extreme wind events. This would include tornado shelters in new construction, additions and modifications of buildings like schools and other critical facilities including community centers located in mobile home parks.

Through the U.S. Small Business Administration's (SBA) disaster loan program, tornado victims in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas may be able to borrow up to $200,000 to cover under-insured losses to homes, and $40,000 for personal property losses. An additional 20 percent may be added to the disaster loan to cover the cost of building a "safe room" in the home.

Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House, FEMA Publication 320 (booklet and construction plans), is available free from FEMA by calling 1-888-565-3896. The booklet includes: a homeowner risk assessment worksheet; guidance for selecting a shelter design; detailed construction plans for builders and contractors; cost estimates. The publication also is available for downloading from the FEMA Web site.

Content updated on 7/10/2003

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