Summer storms precipitate tornado safe rooms

WASHINGTON (AP) — With more than 1,000 tornadoes already recorded this year, government officials announced an effort Tuesday to get people to build “safe rooms,” modern versions of the old-fashioned storm cellar.
While tornado warnings have improved markedly in recent years, “even a perfect warning is reduced to an academic exercise if people don’t receive it and react to it,” said National Weather Service Director John J. Kelly Jr.
“When that warning comes on, a tornado warning, people need to put their family in a safe place,” said James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We can no longer tolerate the losses that we see,” Witt told the opening session of the National Tornado Forum here. So far this year, 120 people have died in tornadoes. “That’s 120 lives too many,” he said.
Witt announced that FEMA and the Wind Research Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock have developed plans for construction of safe rooms in homes in tornado-prone areas.
“When constructed according to the plans, the safe room can provide protection against winds of up to 250 miles per hour and projectiles traveling at 100 miles an hour,” he said.
Wind speeds vary in tornadoes, but only the most powerful top 250 miles per hour. Much of the damage near the twisters is caused by flying debris.
The plans are aimed at homeowners who want to have a shelter built into a home under construction, but some can also be used to add a shelter to an existing house. They include designs for safe rooms in basements, crawl spaces and in aboveground locations, depending on the home. The rooms can be in closets, bathrooms, storage areas and other locations that can be reinforced. Depending on the materials used and the size and location of the room, costs could range from $2,000 to $5,800.
Kelly noted that the United States has more instances of severe weather than any other country, including an annual average of 1,000 tornadoes. This year, he added, we’re slightly ahead, with 1,100 so far.
Thanks to improved radar and satellites and training, the accuracy of tornado warnings has increased sharply since the mid-1980s, with lead time doubled to 10 minutes, he said.
Yet cases still occur like the February storms in Florida that killed 42 people.
“We had warnings out with good lead time, but it was late at night, with no outdoor sirens, televisions turned off and most of our citizens in bed,” Kelly said. Most people never heard the warnings.
Kelly said his agency is increasing the number of its local weather radio stations and plans efforts to educate people to buy weather radios, listen for warnings and to know what to do when they hear one.
“In this country, severe storms are coming; it’s not a question of if, but when,” he said. “Even with improved warnings we don’t have hours, we have minutes.”
Witt said the safe room project was developed at the request of state and local emergency management officials and people who had lost their homes in tornadoes.
Whether a home needs a safe room depends on whether it’s in tornado- and storm-prone areas — they could also be useful in a hurricane — and access to other shelters in an emergency.
The 25-page home brochure, “Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House,” will be available starting in October from FEMA. Interested persons can call 1-800-480-2520 or through the Internet at