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My family decided to build a safe room—should you?

Hurricanes, beware.

Safe room under construction with concrete walls, floor, and ceiling Credit: Christine Warner

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Growing up on the coast of Florida, I became aware of the real dangers of hurricane season at a young age, and what it meant for my family. Stuff like tossing all our patio furniture into our pool to prevent it from becoming a projectile during hurricane-force winds, waterproofing all of our important documents and most cherished photos, and packing up all of our most important things, our pets, and flying or driving out to a state where we knew we’d be safe, leaving behind a house we just might not come back to.

As natural homebodies, my parents couldn’t bear the idea of leaving behind their home because of an incoming hurricane. Although evacuation is the best and only option in many circumstances—and you should always follow the emergency directives put out by the National Weather Service—my parents did everything they could to make hunkering down at home as safe as possible for all of us.

In 2006, when my parents decided to add on a new addition to the home, they made room for one special room, covered with thick concrete walls and ceiling, and reinforced with rebar steel. This would become our in-house safe room, made to become our safe haven for future hurricanes, tornados, or severe storms.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that homeowners ask themselves the following questions when considering building a safe room:

  • What is my risk for tornadoes and/or hurricanes?
  • What existing refuge options do I have if a tornado or hurricane occurs in my location?
  • What level of safety am I comfortable with?
  • How feasible is it to construct a safe room and what are the costs?

When my parents were considering their options, they had the idea of some sort of safe room or storm shelter, especially after the terror that was the 2004 hurricane season. The risk of hurricanes was high, as it is in any other Florida area, and my parents wanted to improve the level of safety in their own home.

Wide angle of a safe room in construction
Credit: Christine Warner

After the 2004 hurricane season, my parents knew they wanted to implement safer measures into this house—and with a new addition on the way, they decided to build an in-home shelter that's easily accessible through an extra-durable door, connected to our living room.

Over 15 years later, my parents still believe this is one of the best investments they’ve made for the home. While I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve had to shelter in our safe room, knowing it exists and can protect us in the event of a severe weather event was proof enough that it was essential for us.

If you’re considering installing a safe room or storm shelter in your own home? Here are a few reasons why you may want to, from me—someone who grew up with one.

Reason 1: You live in a high-risk area

Whether it be tornado alley or a coastal area at risk for hurricanes, where you live is a good place to start in deciding if a safe room is right for you.

With hurricanes, homeowners have up to a few days of notice of incoming danger. With tornadoes, you may only have a few seconds to shelter. Either way, potentially life-threatening weather events are unpredictable—and preparing for the worst-case scenario is the best thing you can do for yourself and your home.

Unfortunately, dangerous and severe weather is becoming more frequent and intense in our world. As weather events continue to cause destruction across the U.S., it’s become important now more than ever to have an emergency plan in the case of damage to the home or even an injury in the family.

According to FEMA, having a safe room can provide near-absolute protection for you and your family from dangerous forces of extreme winds experienced during tornadoes, hurricanes, or other strong storms. Storm shelters and safe rooms that meet the proper criteria can protect against 250 mph of sustained wind speed and wind gusts experienced during a hurricane, a tornado, or other severe storm.

Reason 2: Evacuation isn’t possible

When forecasting a hurricane, you may have a few days in advance to decide what your plan is based on the information (like the timing, the path, and the severity) presented to you by meteorologists.

In many cases, there may be a mandatory evacuation issued by your county—in this evacuation, you must leave your home and seek shelter in a safer area as experts have determined your area may experience life-threatening storm conditions. In other cases, evacuations aren’t mandatory, and residents may stay if they feel safe in doing so with what they know about the incoming storm.

But, just like other weather phenomena, hurricanes can be unpredictable. They can easily turn in direction or pick up more speed, making a once-safe area now in the path of a severe storm. In this case, it’s important to have a safe place to hide in your home, especially if damage has already occurred and evacuating from your area has been deemed too dangerous to do so once the hurricane makes landfall.

Other severe weather like tornadoes or strong storms are even less predictable—you may only have minutes to decide what you need to do in the event you are in the crosshairs of such destruction. Evacuation is not an option at this point and finding the safest place in your home is pertinent. In times like these, having a safe room or storm shelter right on your property can be a literal life-saver.

Reason 3: You’ll enjoy peace of mind

Safe room with bikes and hurricane shutters stored, along with a shelf of emergency supplies and other storage items
Credit: Reviewed / Felicity Warner

My family's safe room is used as overflow storage during the off-season, but there's still enough room for all of us to fit in case of an emergency. Take a look at the bottom right of this photo—you'll see our hurricane shutters that can easily be installed when a hurricane is forecasted to head our way.

When my parents moved in together and bought a home on the west coast of Florida, they accepted the risks that come living in a hurricane-prone area. Of course, it’s easy to think it will “never happen to me” when it comes to severe weather events or any other tragic incidents.

After a few years with little hurricane activity in the area, 2004 arrived as one particularly active season—there were four hurricanes in a matter of six weeks, with each of these hurricanes posing a serious risk to Floridians’ homes and lives. The first hurricane of the four, Hurricane Charley, became the wake-up call for my parents.

“The first one, we stayed and were scared. We said we’d never do it again, and we’d evacuate, so we evacuated for the next three,” says Christine Warner, my mom.

Thankfully, our area was spared in terms of widespread damage from the 2004 hurricane season, but my parents wanted to have peace of mind from then on out if a worst-case scenario ever became a reality for our home.

“We’ve only used the room seriously maybe once or twice—but, our area has also been lucky when it comes to hurricane damage in comparison to other Florida towns on the coast. As the saying goes, better safe than sorry,” she says.

If you’re going to build, understand your options

First, understand the difference between storm shelters and safe rooms. The criteria for design and construction differ slightly, but they both provide adequate protection when they meet their respective criteria.

FEMA offers criteria for the level of protection for both a safe room and a storm shelter, with safe rooms having the more conservative code.

Within the storm shelter and safe room categories are many types of shelters. Each offers different pros and cons based on your preferences, but at the end of the day, all do the same job in protecting you and your household. The main types of storm shelters to choose from are above-ground, underground, and in-home shelters.

Above-ground rooms are free-standing structures that can be installed in your yard, shed, garage, or other outside area.

Sara Espino, a sales representative at Torshel Storm Shelters and Safe Rooms, says she typically recommends these shelters for elderly or disabled homeowners—this is because in a state of emergency, you’ll need to shelter quickly, so the fewer barriers or time it takes to enter the room, the better.

Underground shelters, also known as in-ground shelters, can be constructed under your home, garage, or your yard, and offer protection from strong winds and flying debris. But, this might not be the right option for your home if you live in a high-risk flood zone—which you can check for yourself on FEMA’s website—because it could be risky to exit and also fallen debris during a strong storm could trap you from exiting your shelter promptly.

My family has what’s called an in-home shelter—one that’s built into the existing home’s structure with protective materials the rest of your home may not have, such as steel rebar and concrete. Having a safe room in the house may make your path to shelter more convenient and accessible.

Plan accordingly for costs and timelines

According to Home Advisor, the typical cost range for a storm shelter can be anywhere from $2,535 to $10,558. You’ll be able to get a better estimate for the cost by answering a few questions through Home Advisor’s site, but you can also call a few local companies to get some quotes to work with.

Costs will range heavily depending on many factors, including your preferences on the type and size of the shelter. In addition, external factors like what time of year you start the buying process or demand for the supplies used to construct the safe room will affect the price, too.

Espino explains that the demand for shelter rooms is increasing. And as of late, due to supply chain issues happening across the country, the process from start to finish may take longer than it has in years past.

She says, “There is a high demand in storm shelters—there are a lot of people who are interested. It’s not even a want at this point, but a need—they’ve seen destruction near their home.”

With this in mind, Espino stresses the importance of starting early—like any other construction project, there will be many steps that can take multiple weeks to finish. However, don’t be discouraged if you’re starting your buying process a little late.

“I wouldn’t say ‘forget about it until next year’. I would say don’t lose interest and go ahead and purchase even if we install it during a time when there isn’t much going on with the weather,” says Espino.

Espino also notes you may also save money during the off-season when rates aren’t as high during that time.

Many people choose to construct their own safe rooms—but for them to be just as protective as the next one, they should follow the guidance provided in FEMA P-320, Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building or Installing a Safe Room for Your Home.

Of course, the best shelter room for your home is one that is tailored to your household’s needs. My family worked closely with a local architect for months to figure out our best options. Don’t be afraid to talk to multiple reputable contractors and companies along the way to best understand what’s right for you.

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