Above Ground Storm Shelters are the Safest Option
Popular opinion in many parts of the country is that when a tornado is bearing down on a community, the only safe place to take shelter is below ground. Joseph has found that this flies in the face of 15 years of research done at Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute investigating the safety of above-ground storm shelters. He discusses findings from the Moore, OK, tragedy as well as several additional benefits of above-ground shelters. In addition, he shows video of TTU’s Debris Impact Facility firing 15-pound, 2″ by 4″ wood beams at 100 mph to show what tornadic debris can do to a normal home and how a storm shelter keeps occupants safe.
Following the recent devastating tornadoes we heard from many of you asking how to be certain a safe room will keep your family safe through a large tornado.
Alex Ryan was there when the EF-5 tornado barreled into Birmingham.
“When you see a tornado that is that big you have no choice. It’s either find cover or die,” he said.
John Melton also rode out the storm. He and his family didn’t have a safe room so they took to their cellar.
“We locked the cellar door when we saw it coming and it got louder and the next thing you know you see the latch coming undone and you couldn’t reach for it and it ripped open the door. Glass and debris started slamming on us,” John said.
The Meltons all survived but many people have asked us in the wake of the deadly storms which type of safe room is best. We have made, and installed both for 21+ years, so we have a unique perspective with evidence to support our stance.
Amidst the debris in the path of the EF-5 tornado that tore through Alabama we found safe rooms that survived; both above and below ground.
But we wanted to know whether above or below ground is safest because just as the Alabama tornado began to hit, people were being told the only safe place to be is underground.
FEMA says in the right safe room your family will have near absolute protection even in storms whipping up to 250 miles per hour.
Nathan Evans and his family took to their safe room as the deadly Huntsville tornado descended on them.
“Usually the ones that come around here they kind of come close but never had a direct hit,” said Nathan.
This time it was a direct hit.
The storm sucked the door open on the family’s underground safe room.
“It was scary in respect that I thought I might lose someone in my family.”
It’s a worst case scenario: 250 mph wind with flying debris.
Could above ground safe rooms / above ground storm shelters hold as well?
To find out we traveled to the Texas Tech Wind Research Center. At the facility in Lubbock, Texas scientists use a wind cannon to launch wood and metal to simulate wind and damaging storm debris. It can produce EF-5 level tornado damage.
The cannon simulates wind of 250 mph. The researchers line up a safe room to take the hits with objects including 2×4’s fired at the shelter’s most vulnerable spots such as away from studs and into the door. A storm shelter would be considered a failure if the steel is pushed inward more than three inches.
The cannon fires a series of EF-5 level shots. The safe room performs perfectly.
Barely any evidence of impact exists on the tornado shelter, no holes and the door remains sealed. The shelter would also remain attached to the ground during a tornado. Huge, specially-made bolts driven into at least 4 inches of concrete prevent this shelter from being picked up or pushed over.
A lot of individuals can’t go underground (and we further discuss what to do if an underground shelter is not an option here). Some have underground shelters, but they aren’t able to get into those shelters when the storm hits, or as a result of an array of factors, an underground storm shelter is not possible where they live. Above ground storm shelters are easier and less expensive to install, which makes them more accessible to consumers.
So now, back to our question — which is superior? Above or below ground storm shelters?
Larry Tanner, research associate at the Wind Research Center, says most importantly your safe room must be designed and built to FEMA guidelines.
“They’re all safe if they are tested products,” said Tanner. And all our tornado shelters are tested.
However, in a below ground safe room you face the risk of debris blocking the exit, or flooding (when a tornado demolishes a home, it typically exposes a water line that can and often does lead to flooding in underground storm shelters).
The good news: No one has ever been killed in an approved above ground storm shelter.
And after seeing video footage of cars picked up and tossed by tornadoes many people ask whether above ground safe rooms will stand up to cars falling out of the sky?
Tanner says safe rooms built to FEMA guidelines handle a 3,000 pound vehicle being dropped on them no problem.
“The 57 Cadillac draping over the sides of the shelter. That’s virtually what we see all the time,” Tanner said.