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Storm-proof your home with a safe room

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When you know a tornado is headed our way, where do you hide?

More and more of the homeowners I work with are locking themselves in “safe rooms” in their own homes — rooms with reinforced walls, floors and ceilings, with sturdy doors and with no windows.

Safe rooms effectively protect the people during a storm that the mayor of Moore, Okla., the Oklahoma City suburb that was devastated the other week by tornadoes, is pushing through a local ordinance to require every new house there to have one.

We’re much luckier here than our friends in Moore who lost loved ones and property to extreme winds. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare ourselves for the worst.

You don’t need a lot of space or even a lot of money to build a simple safe room for your family to hide out in when high winds blow through your neighborhood. FEMA estimates that an adequate safe room costs anywhere from $6,000 to more than $13,000, depending on the size of the room, the materials you use and where you locate it.

Here are 10 things to consider if you’re thinking about building a safety net for your family:

n Sturdy walls. Concrete walls are sturdy, heavy and offer the greatest protection during a storm, but unless you’re building your safe room in a basement or as an addition to your house, your home’s wood-framed floors and ceilings probably will not support the weight. An alternative: Reinforce the walls, floors and ceiling of your safe room with more wood. A tip: Find an engineer or a contractor who is qualified to determine the structural needs of a safe room.

n Do you have a basement? If you’re one of the rare homeowners around Shreveport who has a basement, build your safe room there. You can use two of the already-existing concrete foundation walls as two sides of your safe room, which will save you the cost of building all four walls. You’ll still need to reinforce the ceiling. This is called a “lean-to” safe room.

n Avoid building a safe room on the top level of your house. And if you live in a single-story home, do not rely on your existing roof for cover. Reinforce the ceiling of the safe room so it’s still safe once the roof blows off.

Buy the sturdiest door you can afford, and equip it with a fail-safe lock so it won’t blow open during a storm.

n A safe room should have no windows.

n Utilize what you already have. If your home already has an interior, windowless room, like a powder room, laundry room or large closet, you can convert it to a safe room and continue to use it for its regular purpose during calm weather. Because a powder room has running water and a toilet, it’s a bit more convenient than other spaces if you’re stuck in there for a few hours.

n Consider other rooms. Garages and crawl spaces also are handy locations for a safe room.

n Easy access. Locate your safe room in a spot that’s easy for everyone in your family to get to in a hurry. If someone in your household uses a walker or a wheelchair, make sure the door is wide enough to roll through and the room itself is large enough for the seated occupant. FEMA recommends figuring five square feet per person, and more for wheelchair – or bedridden occupants.

n It is better to over prepare. As long as you’re building a new room or reinforcing an existing one, make it sturdier than you think it needs to be. You never know how fast the next storm’s winds will blow.

n Don’t forget the supplies. Equip your safe room with water, canned food and a manual can opener, disposable forks, plates and cups, a first-aid kit, enough flashlights for every member of your family, extra batteries and a fire extinguisher.

Your fortified room can serve a year-round purpose when the weather is nice: Because it’s designed to keep out extreme weather, it’s a safe place to store guns, furs and valuables.

Jeb Breithaupt, B. Arch., MBA, has been president of JEB Design/Build in Shreveport since 1983. You can contact him at 318-865-4914 or by visiting www.Jeb.net.