Safe shed

These above-ground safe rooms are engineered to withstand an EF-5 tornado. They include reinforced concrete rooms without windows and triple-hinged doors.

One western Kentucky business took extra steps to safeguard their employees. While working at the tornado shelter at the Lee S. Jones Convention Center, Chad Cowan stopped by. He is the Safety and Health director for Independent Stave Company which locally includes Benton Wood Products.

Cowan assisted in the purchase of two safe rooms for the Benton facility that are able to withstand an EF-5 tornado. These facilities have enough capacity to house the workers during a shift. “The third shift was on that night, the weekend shift, and they were able to get all of their folks into the shelters,” Cowan said.

He said that these are above-ground safe rooms that are engineered to withstand an EF-5 tornado. “They are reinforced concrete rooms without windows, the doors are triple hinged,” he said. “We are glad that we had them.”

The tornado passed about a mile away.

The shelters at Benton Wood Products are from a company called Safe Shed out of Illinois. Two other companies Cowan has researched include Storm Box which uses recycled, reinforced shipping containers and Survive a Storm which builds safe rooms for larger capacity groups. Independent There are many companies that can be found online and we have local companies that install in-ground safe rooms. Independent State is planning to install additional safe rooms for employees at other company locations.

Storm shelters are built below ground and safe rooms are built above ground or in a basement. In areas likely to flood during a tornado evacuation is recommended. There are federal, state and local codes which apply to storm shelters and safe rooms. To withstand tornados, storm shelters should be ICC 500-compliant and safe rooms go a step further and are both ICC 500 and FEMA P-361-compliant.

Safe rooms built to withstand tornados are windowless facilities that are engineered for wind speeds of 250 mph, intense wind pressure and wind-born debris impacts. FEMA P-361 provides the most current, up-to-date guidance on safe room design. Safe rooms are required to be permanently labeled with construction and compliance information and the year the compliance met. The FEMA P-361 guidelines were updated in 2020. They are updated as storm damage is reviewed and amended for any failures or issues that are found.

Kentucky is in FEMA area 4 with significant risk from tornados. FEMA recommends safe rooms over storm shelters for all of Tornado Zone 4. Safe rooms for tornadoes are designed for short stays not more than a few hours while the designs for hurricane areas include amenities for longer-term stays. They are considered to provide near-absolute protection with a very high probability of being protected from injury or death.

Safe rooms can be located inside, including in a basement, as a standalone building outside of a home and in the ground. Inside access reduces problems with flying debris when entering a safe room in a storm. Access should be not more than 150 feet from a main entrance of the house. The publication FEMA P-320 Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room provides guidance on the planning design, construction, and installation of residential safe rooms.

Safe rooms typically are concrete that is fully grouted reinforced with rebar. Door design and anchoring are also critical components. The safe room door must withstand extreme events and there is a FEMA publication on this, Residential Tornado Safe Room Doors Fact Sheet. For pre-manufactured safe rooms there are very specific foundation and anchoring criteria. Buoyancy and hydrostatic pressure can cause an in-ground safe room to be pushed out of the ground where water tables are high. Safe rooms are not waterproof so they cannot be located where flooding is a potential issue.

If near a large building safe rooms need to be able to withstand potential debris loads from a building collapse. There are air gaps designed to allow for air exchange but still prevent debris from penetrating the room. FEMA considers safe rooms residential when built for up to 16 people. A very good review of safe room design is a slide set that can be found with an online from the University of Minnesota, Storm Shelter Design: Overview of IBC and ICC-500 Requirements. We can provide printed copies of these publications on request.

The recommended minimum floor area per tornado safe room occupant is 5 square feet per standing or seated occupant, 10 square feet for a person that is wheelchair bound and 30 square feet for a person that is bedridden. Shelters can be stocked with a crank-style radio, ham radio, flashlight, bottled water, basic first-aid supplies, an extra cell phone and essentials for a few hours stay.

Storm shelter sales people often follow a disaster. It is important to watch out for the scammers that often target people when they are vulnerable in many areas including sales, insurance and donation fraud. Beware of aggressive sales pitches and companies without a local, physical address. They should be able to produce a business license and written information about the company. They should have solid references. Do not open suspicious emails and verify all phone numbers and information from social media posts. There are no fees when you apply for government assistance following a disaster. Do not send cash by wire transfer.

Know that officials do not call or text for financial information. Watch for spoofers that falsely identify themselves on your caller ID display. You can hang up and call back to a number on the official website or to your insurance company directly to be sure. Use local contractors who have reliable references. Require a written contract from anyone you hire. Be sure to get a written receipt for and payment and do not pay more than half of the cost upfront. Always pay by check or credit card so that there is a record and to avoid a double-charge.

Many unethical contractors will give low bids that seem attractive. They may be uninsured and may charge large cancellation fees. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. To report a scam or fraud call local law-enforcement and you can report to FEMA’s toll-free Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721.

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