Recent storms focus on need for adequate tornado shelters

Although tornadoes can strike any time of the year, the “official” severe storm season has begun.

Conventional wisdom has been to get in a shelter if possible when a tornado warning occurs, and if this is not possible, get in an interior room or closet.

As the recent rash of severe tornadoes in the Midwest has shown, however, being in an interior room or covered in a bath tub really offers no guaranteed safety when a storm does hit.

A number of public shelters are scattered around Union County, mostly at volunteer fire departments, but the City of New Albany has no public shelters, or even sites designated as emergency shelters.

Years ago, the basement of the post office and courthouse were designated as Civil Defense fallout shelters and de facto storm shelters, but they are no longer accessible and would only hold a few people anyway.

In recent years, people have continued to go to the basement of the old city hall – now the police department – when storms threaten but this space also is limited.

Some people have gone to the hospital, but that interferes with patient care and safety and many parts of the hospital are not specifically constructed to serve as a shelter against tornadoes.

The alternative is some sort of home shelter, and today a wider variety of shelters is available locally and, considering they may save the lives of your family, quite affordable.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the three main types of shelters are designed to help you get protection from severe weather no matter where you live. Each has benefits but also considerations that should be taken into account.

The oldest and most traditional is the “storm cellar.” For years, most were homemade and did not follow any particular standards. Modern versions are often sturdier, better constructed and more comfortable. These shelters are usually safe from flying debris and high winds, FEMA says, but are less likely to be occupied if access requires outdoor exposure. Installation can be a problem, depending on the type of rock and the water table in your area.

A newer type of shelter slowly gaining popularity is the in-home version. FEMA describes them as more like fortified closets, so they are more accessible when a tornado is coming. They are usually built into a new house using reinforced concrete, reinforced masonry or wood/steel combinations. Building one into an existing house can be difficult and costly. Alternatives include pre-built metal shelters that are not only easier to install, but can be placed almost anywhere in the house.

Some in-home shelters now are actually underground as well.

If a family shelter isn’t an option, community shelters can hold multiple families (from 12 people all the way up to several hundred). These shelters are usually above-ground, exposing them to flying debris, but many more lives can be saved.

The choice is up to the individual but safety standards for storm shelters and shelter components have been established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure that you will be protected in most tornadoes, while the National Storm Shelter Association has also established a shelter standard.

The Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University performs tests on shelters and various shelter components to see if they meet both sets of guidelines. Researchers use high-powered air cannon to shoot wooden two-by-fours at shelter walls and doors to simulate flying debris, while another test uses a wind tunnel to simulate the high winds and stress that walls would encounter. Depending on the type of shelter that’s right for you, these tests and guidelines can help you choose the shelter that can best protect your family when a real tornado hits.

The following rules are only a few of the federal guidelines established by FEMA. More information, including building plans, materials and more is available either by calling 1-888-565-3896 and requesting publication FEMA 320 (“Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House”).

High Winds: Tested with a 3-second gust of 250 mph.

Walls, doors and ceilings must be able to withstand the peak wind velocity without buckling or separating.

The shelter cannot overturn or slide.

Debris: Tested with a 15 lb. two-by-four wooden board propelled at 100 mph (250 mph wind equivalent)

The walls and ceiling of a shelter must resist penetration by a test object.

Other Requirements:

Shelters must have a protected ventilation system.

Shelters should have at least one fire extinguisher, flashlights, a first-aid kit, eight hours’ supply of drinking water, and a NOAA weather radio.

Additional Requirements for Underground Shelters:

Shelters must be watertight and resist flotation due to saturated soil.

Shelters must contain a transmitter of some sort to signal the location of the shelter to emergency personnel, should debris trap shelter occupants.

Community shelters in Union County

(A community shelter needs five square feet per standing person and a residential shelter three square feet)

2 at East Union Fire Station 1 and 4 at East Union Fire Station 2
2 at Southeast Fire Station 1 and 2 at Southeast Fire Station 2

4 at Alpine Fire Department

2 at Northeast Fire Station 1 and 2 at Northeast Fire Station 2

2 at Pindale Fire Department

2 at Ingomar Fire Station 2

4 at the Town of Blue Springs

0 in the City of New Albany

The best source of awareness for imminent severe weather is the free CodeRED reverse 911 program sponsored by the county and Three Rivers Planning and Development District. To sign up, go to and select the CodeRED button on the menu bar or call 662-489-2415 for a local signup number.