Shelter from the Storm

storm shelter guide

Article provided by Farm Credit Bank of Texas

It’s autumn in Texas. Humidity levels have plummeted, and there’s not a cloud in the sky. We’re on the backside of hurricane season, and tornado season is several months away.

But as sure as winter is coming, so is twister time. And now may be the best time to create a safe haven for your family during a storm—especially if you live in rural Texas.

Early Texas pioneers often relied on underground root cellars or storm caves built into hillsides for protection from tornadoes and other inclement weather. Without advanced weather forecasting systems, they had to be prepared for the worst.

Storm shelter technology and manufacturing have come a long way. According to the National Storm Shelter Association, research into buildings that resist extreme winds began after a tornado claimed 26 lives and heavily damaged Lubbock in 1970. Texas Tech University researchers produced a documentary of building damage, the first of its kind, and were the first to present the concept of above-ground storm shelters. Recently, major storms in our region have inspired a surge of new interest in taking shelter at home.

Today a variety of shelter types offers homeowners many choices. The first decision is when to install a shelter, and the most practical, economical time is during home construction or remodeling. Deciding whether you want your shelter located inside or outside your home will help you narrow down your options.


A safe room provides the quickest access to safety and can be built as a reinforced interior room on a home’s first floor or in a basement. An in-ground safe room can also be installed beneath a concrete slab or garage floor.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) guidebook Taking Shelter From the Storm, a safe room at a home or small business “can help provide ‘near-absolute’ protection for you and your family or employees from injury or death caused by the dangerous forces of extreme winds.”

Quick access to “near-absolute” protection is what attracted John and Natasha Sawyer to include a safe room in blueprints for the home they built in 2007, a few miles north of Hillsboro, Texas.

“We knew that when we built our new home, we wanted a shelter, and we wanted it in the house,” Natasha says. “The water table is pretty high out here, so we knew a basement wouldn’t work.”

Based on specifications provided by FEMA and the Texas Tech University Tornado Research Center, the Sawyers’ builder constructed their 10-by-12-foot cinder-block safe room as an interior room on the first floor of their home, with an easily accessible metal door and no windows.

They covered the cinder blocks with drywall, so that it looks like any other interior room. The steel door is built to FEMA code, with multiple hinges and at least three deadbolt locks, and is covered in hickory to match the home’s other interior doors.

Tornadoes tend to move quickly through an area, so you won’t need to stay in the safe room during a twister for very long. According to FEMA, about 5 square feet of floor area per person is plenty of space for a safe room. For protection from hurricanes, which last longer, comfort is a higher priority, and FEMA recommends 7 to 20 square feet of floor space per occupant.

Because safe rooms are located inside a home, they can serve a dual purpose as a home office, closet or storage area for valuables. For example, Jason Gandy, vice president of Capital Farm Credit in Lubbock, financed a rural home near Idalou that included a basement and a safe room that doubles as a gun safe in a closet. On the downside, safe rooms are generally the most expensive option, especially when installing one in an existing home.


An underground tornado shelter is not exposed to high winds and debris like an above-ground shelter is. Built of concrete, fiberglass, plastic or steel, underground shelters can be accessible from either inside or outside the home.

When Garry and Charlene Lightfoot were building their rural home six years ago, they considered several shelter designs and sizes before opting for a prefabricated concrete in-ground room. Wanting a safe place close to the house that they could access in a hurry, the couple located their shelter just steps from their back porch.

About the size of a bathroom, the room is constructed in two sections. A local septic contractor did the work, digging the hole and positioning the bottom half into it. “We have black dirt here, and no rock, which made excavation easy,” says Charlene.

The top half of the structure and the steel door came next, along with a turbine vent for air circulation. A tar-like sealant on the seam protects against leaks.

Kenneth Hooper, vice president with Panhandle-Plains Land Bank in Plainview, says that in his area of the Texas Panhandle, it just makes sense to have a storm shelter. Knowing that your home offers protection from the havoc of Mother Nature can provide peace of mind that far outweighs the expense, he adds.

“For the price of a nice garden tractor, cruise vacation or swimming pool, you can have long-term security for your family,” Hooper says. “Especially in the flat, rural areas of the Panhandle, when you see a tornado or a big storm heading your way, you aren’t going to be thinking about how much a shelter cost. You’re going to be thinking about how glad you are to have it.”

The costs associated with storm shelters can easily be rolled into a home construction or home improvement loan, he points out.

The total cost for the Lightfoots’ installed shelter, which could accommodate six to eight people, was $3,000 in 2007, and it was financed as part of their home loan with Texas Land Bank.

“Some people don’t feel like it is a necessity to spend the money, but one night we spent 1½ hours in there, and I was very glad we had it,” says Charlene.


If you are interested in building a storm shelter, you can find detailed information in a number of helpful resources online.

  • Several guidebooks can be ordered or downloaded from the Federal Emergency Management Association website, including Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House (FEMA 320) and Residential Sheltering: In-Residence and Stand-Alone Shelters (FEMA DR-1699-RA3).
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock is the leading university in tornado and wind research, and offers a wealth of information on constructing shelters.
  • The International Code Council and the National Storm Shelter Association jointly released the Standard on the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters (ICC 500-2008). or


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