Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Building a Safe Space

Fair warning, this is a long blog post, but it could save your life. I’ve never made that claim before, but whether you’re a DIY’er or not, the information is invaluable even if you don't have a fancy storm shelter like this. 

April 2nd of last year my husband was in the hospital. Dying as it turned out, though he wasn’t critical on that date. I got up early to go to the hospital, but before I got out the door my daughter called to say a tornado was headed my way. About the same time the tornado alarms went off. The alert came over the phone. The TV was warning, “Get to your safe place now.”

I don’t have a safe place. “Go to the bathroom,” my daughter screamed.

“Which one?” I screamed back.

“The one in your bedroom. Don’t forget pillows. Get Buffy.” Buffy is my dog.

Buffy didn’t want to go in the bathroom. She has bad memories from puppyhood about that room. I couldn’t get the pillows and hold onto her.

I could hear the wind howling when I dove into my bathtub. (I later learned this isn’t be best place to be.)

“Stay calm,” my daughter said. “It looks like it’s going north of your area, down Watson.”

Watson is the street where the hospital is located.

I was never more terrified in my life. In fact, I have PTSD recall every time rain is predicted, possibly because I lost my husband a few days later. No, the tornado didn’t hit the hospital. In fact, no one was killed or injured, just some property damage.

Later that year, I decided to close my pool. My husband had always done the maintenance and I’d never learned. It’s a huge pool and deep. I found out it would take about ten dump truck loads of dirt to fill it in, and unfortunately, the trucks couldn’t get into my backyard, so the dirt had to be dumped in my front yard and carried by wheelbarrow to the pool’s gaping hole. For that reason, it became a long process, even with my grandson and his friend hauling the dirt. Here it is in process of being buried.

After my experience with the tornado, I’d done some research into storm shelters. The commercial ones, cylinders buried in the ground, were expensive, the cheapest being about $5,000, not including installation. However, I learned you could build your own safe place for much less.

I decided to build my own bunker in the deep end of my pool before filling it in. So I did, using the boys’ muscles and my limited know-how. Fortunately, a cinderblock structure is about the easiest one you could build. Not that I didn’t run into unforeseen problems. The pool was drained after a long dry spell, so I didn’t think about the normal water table. If I had I’d have left the pool lining in that section. The dry season was followed by the wettest winter in years. My bunker filled up with about a foot of water. I bought a pump and pumped it out. It filled up again. I finally gave up and covered it with dirt although I lost that head space. This is why you don’t have many houses with basements in the South. The water table is too high. Here is an example of a DIY above-ground shelter.

The tricky part of building an underground bunker type storm shelter is capping it. The top has to be enclosed with dirt or cement. I decided to do both. To prepare it for that much weight, I installed four inch timbers every four inches everywhere except where the hatch would go. After that we screwed in 2x6 inch joists every foot. On top of that 1x6 inch planks. In all about 11 inches of treated wood. To seal the top, I used patio roofing strips. They are tough plastic and interlock.

We made the hatch opening as small as possible, 26 inches by 42 inches, because it’s the most vulnerable part of the structure. The door was cut out of ¾ inch treated plywood, framed with 1x6 lumber. It is located several inches underground, so unless it’s blown in, it should work. We also built a ladder of 2x6s.

A cinderblock retaining wall was built around the hatch on three sides and the whole top was covered with sand. Eventually, it will be capped with a layer of concrete which will form the foundation of the garden shed I hope to build over it. This concrete slab, reinforced with rebar, will extend a foot beyond the bunker, so it won’t bear the weight of the slab or the structure above it.

That completes my safe place—an 8x8 foot underground bunker. I pray I never have to use it. The chances of being struck once by a tornado is very low. Being struck twice astronomical.

But it happened. In January, the alerts went off again. My daughter and granddaughter were with me, and they managed to keep me from freaking out. Strangely, I heard nothing, not even the rain. Maybe the Lord closed my ears to the havoc going on outside. This tornado hit one street over, in fact the houses across from me had roof damage, and one huge tree was twisted at the trunk and pulled up by the roots. A Walmart was heavily damaged.

Here are some tips from my research.

1. If you don’t have an underground safe place, the next best place is a basement. However, you need to stake out the best place to gather in the basement because you’re still in danger of the whole house collapsing in on you. A closet or bathroom farthest from the outside is adequate, otherwise, find the farthest, deepest corner and prop a 4 x 8 piece of 1-inch plywood on the wall and anchor it with sandbags. This will protect you from flying debris.

2. If you don’t have a basement, locate the innermost enclosed space in your house. A bathroom or walk-in closet is good. Next find a thick, used mattress, size depends on the available space. Don’t think you can hold onto the mattress against tornadic winds. Attach marine strength cordage to the mattress. Get the largest anchor hooks you can find. Imbed these anchors into the floor into the foundation at the baseboards to be out of the way. When a storm threatens, attach the mattress to the hooks and crawl under it, face down, with a small pillow under your head and hands locked around your neck.

3. If you rent or live on an upper story apartment or mobile home, ask your landlord if a safe place is available. If none is, as is likely, search out your town. Many communities in tornado alley have shelters available. However, make sure they are open 24 hours a day in case of violent weather. If no public shelter is available, check out public buildings with basements, like your church. Can someone be available to open the door at all hours in case of need? Get their phone numbers. Make sure there is backup. Another possibility is the hospital, which is open 24 hours a day. My hospital has a basement. Just remember, the public buildings won’t have the added protection of your own basement, so find the most underground wall. One good thing is, you won’t be alone. Others will be gathering there.

4. Wherever you find your safe place, take your fully charged cellphone with you. Fortunately tornados are local, and though you may lose electricity, cellphones should still function. You must have the ability to communicate in case you get buried under debris. Also, you’ll want to know when the danger has passed. If you are trapped, don’t attempt to crawl out. The building is unstable, live power lines are down. It’s best to stay put and let rescuers come for you. I also have an emergency fanny pack. It contains my meds for two days, my ID and some cash, my phone, a bottle of water and a couple of protein bars. Even if you’re in an underground safe place, your exit may be blocked and you’ll have to call for help. Also, make sure your relatives and neighbors know where your shelter is.

5. If you wish to build your own safe place, there are many options and plans available free on line. Just google them. If you can’t put it underground, there are above ground plans, some as easy to build as a doghouse, and there are ideas for blending them into your landscape. The total cost of my project is about $1200, not including the tips I gave the boys for their backbreaking labor.

There is such a thing as being too cautious, but there’s also such a thing as tempting fate (God). The Lord Who gave animals the instinct to protect themselves from the elements gave us the good sense to prepare for our own protection. I pray I’ll never have to hunker down in my bunker during a tornado, but it’s already giving me peace of mind. Also, it’s nice to think that long after I’m gone, some future residents’ lives may be saved in my bunker.

I can finally look forward to the rainy nights again, knowing if it turns nasty, I have a safe place to go. Even more important I have a safe place to go during the spiritual storms of life by resting on the promises of my Lord Jesus.

Do you have a safe place to go during stormy weather? Or have you ever had an encounter with a tornado and wish you did? Comment and get your name in for a chance to win Witch by Denise Weimer.


  1. Elaine, so sorry you had to experience all of this. I have friends who has the storm shelters on their property. I go to my bathroom in times of a tornado warning. Thank you for sharing this informative post. God bless.

  2. Thanks for stopping by STT today, Marilyn. You always brighten the day.

  3. That was so informative! Glad you have a safe place! We rent so we go into the hall bathroom. We were in there 2 weeks ago with our iPads and a weather radio goingtil midnight. A tornado came about 10 miles away but was small and didn't touch down. Well-- tonight we are under a tornado watch til midnight! Here we go again!
    We were close to one in St Louis about 3 years ago! About two blocks to our North. It sure sounded like a train! Then later when I walked to work-- the wind had blown a brick wall across the street into some cars. It was on the parking lot of the building that I worked in.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience, Paula. Praying for your safety tonight. The tornado that hit my neighborhood in January was an EF2. It caused a good bit of damage. The brick fence it blew down hasn't yet been completely repaired. I'm still astonished I didn't hear anything during that tornado and it being so close, but I might have had a heart attack if I had. I didn't mention what to do when you're at work, but you also need to stake out a safe place there too.

  5. Luckily, we have a basement and I head that way when the conditions point toward unwanted weather. Tornadoes scare me and they are trouble in my eyes.

  6. Thank you Elaine for this well-written post. I am saving it to read again.
    God bless!

  7. Love this! Thanks for sharing.