How In-Residence Shelters can Provide Safety and Value for Properties


Tornado Alley has been uncharacteristically quiet this time of year. The official tornado season is already under way, and the region known for its twisters has only produced a couple in late March.

Weather forecasters and tornado trackers are saying don’t be fooled by March’s near perfect record for fewest twisters in a month. But the break in the action could be a great opportunity for landlords to evaluate tornado preparedness plans and consider upgrading new or existing acquisitions in tornado-prone areas with safe-rooms or in-residence shelters.

Typically, spring is prime time for leasing as residents may be looking to upgrade to single-family homes from apartments. Homes in Tornado Alley — a broad swath from north Texas to South Dakota and west of the Mississippi River that includes Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska — are in the most predictable area where tornadoes form. No other place in the U.S. reports more tornadoes, and the 10 deadliest tornadoes on record since 1840 in this region have accounted for some 2,300 deaths and billions of dollars in damages over the years.

Each year alone, the U.S. experiences more tornadoes than any other country. An average of 1,200 twisters kill 60 people, injures 1,500 and costs at least $400 million, according to a Lloyd’s of London report. In 2011, the U.S. suffered its most devastating tornadic year, with 1,700 twisters that killed 550 and caused $26 billion in damages.

While it appears tornadoes have taken to the sidelines, at least for now, some are saying that conditions for producing tornadoes are expected to appear more frequently by the end of the century. But the unpredictability of tornadoes is reason enough for home owners, especially those in the home leasing industry, to be prepared, says Ed Wolff, president of Leasing Desk Insurance.

“It’s impossible to predict the damage of a tornado, and in many ways unfeasible to avoid,” Wolff said. “But it is possible to be ready.”

Preparedness starts at home with a storm shelter or safe room

Wolff says preparedness starts at home, and points to a number of tips that the American Red Cross, National Weather Service and provide to ready for severe weather.

But he says most homeowners and property managers have an opportunity to look out for the best interests of their residents by helping ensure they are not only properly insured but also offer added protection within the home. Storm shelter reinforced safe rooms or in-residence shelters can help save the lives of tenants when a catastrophic storm hits. For those homes in Tornado Alley, it may mean the difference between leasing a home or it remaining unoccupied.

“There is no question a home that adequately provides shelter for a resident is quite an amenity,” Wolff said.

In-residence shelters offer protection for occupants during severe weather

While a residence may be built to code, devastating winds may be no match. However, homes that are built with in-residence shelters have proven to be safer, according to the National Wind Institute (NWI) at Texas Tech University.

An in-residence shelter is a small windowless room, such as a closet or bathroom, which is readily accessible from all parts of the house and designed to protect occupants. Shelters usually measure 8x8x8 and can be built in new homes or installed as part of a remodeling project. Most homes that are built on a concrete slab can be retrofitted with a plywood and steel-skin shelter.

In-residence shelters have advantages over outdoor storm cellars and can be a good option in homes without basements. Occupants may be less likely to be struck by flying debris while staying inside the home rather than attempting to reach a cellar or community shelter.

Also, the cost of an in-residence shelter is substantially less than that of a basement, NWI says.

Shelters are safe havens within functional rooms of the home

Since 1974, researchers at NWI have been developing above-ground safe places designed to withstand devastating winds. The first safe rooms, which could be built into a closet, were created at that time.

Since then, Texas Tech has continued its research to develop stronger safe rooms within homes. In-residence shelters evolved after post-storm inspections of hundreds of homes in towns and cities slammed by tornadoes often showed that a small room in the middle of a house severely damaged or leveled by a twister remained standing, says NWI.

The university was instrumental in the formation of the National Storm Shelter Association, which was formed to promote construction and manufacturing of storm shelters.

Unlike pre-manufactured safe rooms that are essentially protective vaults constructed into homes, an in-residence shelter is typically a re-enforced and functional part of the house, like a bathroom, closet or utility room. The room must be able to withstand wind speeds of 250 mph, which is typical of almost all tornadoes in the U.S. The structure performance of the shelters depend on adequate fasteners. Also, the roof and walls must be securely anchored to each other, and the structure fastened tightly to the foundation. Adequate ventilation is also necessary.

In addition to NWI, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offer information about safe rooms and in-residence shelters.

Shelters could qualify for federal assistance

For property investors, especially those who are considering investing in the Tornado Alley region, the added safety of a shelter within the residence could be a big marketing advantage, especially when dealing with the unpredictability of severe weather.

Upgrading a home with a storm shelter could qualify for federal assistance. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began providing mortgage insurance to enable homebuyers to borrow up to $5,000 to create windstorm shelters in their homes.

Also, other resources may be available in Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi to help pay for the cost of storm shelters, according to NWI.

“Whatever level of tornado preparedness a homeowner chooses, it’s important to just have a plan,” Wolff says.

“A property owner and resident should prepare themselves for the worst case scenario,” he said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry when dealing with natural disasters like tornadoes.”

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