Joplin tornado anniversary highlights need for 'safe rooms'

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:25 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 22, 2012
The Penton family asked a construction company to build a reinforced safe room in the back of the garage of their Columbia home.

COLUMBIA — When she was a little girl in Macon County, tornado nightmares forced Linda Lowenberg into her family's farmhouse cellar.

"You really would have to be scared to sleep down there, because it was cold and damp," she said.

Options to build your own safe room


FEMA P-320, Taking Shelter from the Storm details designs that are meant to withstand 250 mph winds and projectiles, such as a 15-pound 2-by-4 wood board traveling 100 mph.

The FEMA guidebook explains where in your home to build a safe room, which materials to use, and what emergency supplies to store in the room. The agency also provides downloadable construction plans.  

The safe rooms can be installed underground, in a basement, or on the foundation of a basement-less home. However, they should not be built in houses on a flood plain or in a storm surge area, because of the risk of being trapped and drowned.

The National Storm Shelter Association publishes guidelines for the construction of storm shelters, available for purchase online. The association also certifies members who produce and install storm shelters, including two in Missouri that also offer prefabricated safe rooms that can be installed above or below ground and cost $4,000 to $8,000. National Storm Shelter Association members in Missouri have their products tested under FEMA’s safe room construction requirements and are given a seal.


Haulotte Construction Services 

Keith Haulotte

22351 Westmoreland Road

Sedalia, MO 65301-1052

Phone:  660.827.4781

Fax: 660.827.4701



Missouri Storm Shelters Inc. (Two Missouri locations)

Karen Olsen

1839 N. Commerce Drive

Nixa, MO 65714

Phone: 417.725.0055

Fax: 417.725.0059


3111 S. Rangeline Rd.

Joplin, MO 64804

Phone:  417.782.4444

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Lowenberg would dream of running for the basement, but never quite making it in time.

That's because one day a tornado hit the house early in the morning as she was getting ready for second grade. Her mother shut the upstairs windows against the rain and yelled, "Run to the basement."

"I could hear glass breaking on the back porch," Lowenberg said.

Everyone in the family survived, including Stubby, their border collie. The dog was found about five miles from home, running along the road.

Now Lowenberg is an adult with a daughter in college. Ten years ago her family moved somewhere she never thought they would: To a house with no basement.

"I wanted this house more than I wanted a house with a basement, because it has other advantages: a yard, location, price," she said. "It's a good house to grow old in because it's all on one level."

After the Joplin tornado, Lowenberg said she started thinking seriously about putting a reinforced tornado-safe room in their home.

"I would just like to create a place in the house that would be safer in a tornado than what we have now, which is nothing," she said.

Tornado-proofing seems more relevant than ever, nearly one year after an EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, killing 161 people and reducing nearly one-third of the city to rubble. Last April, a tornado outbreak across the South killed 364 people, according to government estimates.

Compared to last year, sales have gone up 75 percent at Missouri Storm Shelters in Nixa, company president Karen Olsen said. She is also secretary of the board of directors for the National Storm Shelter Association.

"I think it's because the weather is changing and people are more aware that they need protection," Olsen said.

In Columbia, Leigh Pate of Pate-Jones Construction, said the company is researching how to build safe rooms after receiving several inquiries about building them in basement-less homes.

"We're getting more inquiries for them this year compared to previous years, even though we have not built one yet," Pate said.

Many Columbia-area contractors don't have experience building safe rooms or adding one to an existing home. Safe rooms that are built in the area more commonly go into new construction. 

Storm cellars were a feature of Joyce Penton's Missouri childhood. Her grandmother's cellar was stocked with homegrown green beans and corn, along with potatoes they dug. It was kind of scary to go down there,  Penton said, but "it was a place to run to if the storm came." 

When it came time for Penton's 91 year-old mother to move in, the family decided to build a house that would suit everyone. That meant no basement. They asked Gary Naugle Construction to install a reinforced safe room in back of the garage, the first and only safe room the company has built.

Penton said the walls are made from 4-by-4's anchored into the concrete foundation every 6 inches, then covered on all sides with stainless steel. The dark beige door, with three deadbolts and a regular door handle, is also reinforced against a tornado.

"At a glance people wouldn't know it's a stainless steel door, except for the hardware on it," Penton said.

The safe room is the size of a regular room in their home, 8-by-10 feet, and contains a treadmill, a desk with her husband's medications and an extra microwave. The closet shelves hold two kerosene lamps, extra food and other emergency supplies in cardboard boxes, just in case.

Last year's tornadoes have highlighted the need for a safe space at home.

"If we've learned anything from Joplin or similar tornadoes, we probably need to be recommending these safe rooms more often than we do," said Michael Goldschmidt, MU architecture professor and Extension specialist.

Goldschmidt volunteered in Joplin after the tornado as part of the SAVE Coalition, or Structural Assessment and Visual Evaluation, a program run by the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. He and the team went house to house determining whether the structures were safe to welcome residents again.

On some lots, the four walls of a home's interior closet or bathroom were all that was left standing. But in areas where the EF5 portion of the tornado hit, the homes just looked like "a pile of trash," he said.

Goldschmidt said a properly-built safe room would have withstood the high winds and flying debris. Building such a room up to federal standards requires money and work.

"It's not a matter of putting a couple extra nails in the wall," he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has created guidelines for building a safe room inside a house to withstand EF5 tornadoes. 

Building a safe room in a new home can cost between $6,000 and $15,000, depending on size and location, according to FEMA. Texas Tech University, which wind tests storm shelters, estimates building materials for an 8-by-8 room should cost under $2,500.

Building a safe room from scratch can be expensive, but there are plenty of other ways you should prepare for a storm that don't include remodeling.

"We understand that not everyone can afford safe shelters," said Zim Schwartze before she ended her service as director of the Columbia/Boone County Office of Emergency Management, Public Safety Joint Communications.

For Columbia residents like Lowenberg, sometimes everyday demands of life can get in the way of building a safe room.

"I really want to do this, but life is busy and we've got a daughter in college, and we've got an air conditioner we're going to have to replace," Lowenberg said.

While she researches safe rooms, the Lowenbergs' tornado plan amounts to taking shelter in a closet wearing bicycle helmets.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement on using helmets to protect your head during a tornado: "People who choose to use helmets should know where they are and have them readily accessible."

The Columbia/Boone County Office of Emergency Management recommends people have a plan and be prepared for EF1 or EF2 tornadoes — the level Schwartze said the county usually experiences.

At the very least, you should have a small emergency kit in your home or car and agree on a place to meet up with family members in case you have to evacuate quickly. Schwartze said those things are easy to do, inexpensive and can really help in case of an emergency.

"Anything is better than nothing," she said.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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