Taking shelter from the storm

Harold Noirfalise used to curse the big steel box in the garage of his Joplin home. It was there when he and his wife, Brenda, bought the house a couple years ago.

The box shared space with a pickup, a car and a workshop for building radio-controlled model airplanes, making for a crowded garage.

But Noirfalise has had a change of heart since May 22, the day a huge tornado destroyed thousands of buildings and claimed more 150 lives in Joplin. The steel box—actually a tornado safe room—may have saved his life.

Noirfalise was home alone when tornado sirens went off in his neighborhood. When he saw on television—just before the broadcast signal went dead—that the twister was going to tear through Joplin, he had just enough time to dash across the street to warn neighbors, then grab his dog and hurry inside the safe room.

"Right when I shut the door, put the pin in and sat down in the chair, I could hear my roof leaving."

Much of the house's exterior walls went away too. The tornado drove a lengthy 2-by-4 through what was left of his roof and flung a manhole cover—weighing at least 100 pounds—onto his lawn.

The tornado killed at least eight people within a couple blocks of Noirfalise's home. Without the safe room, he might have been one of those people.

"I'll never say a bad word about it again."

As Joplin gets ready to rebuild, architect Jeff Barber, a University of Missouri Extension regional specialist based in Springfield, is working with builders, neighborhood associations, insurers and others to incorporate safe rooms into new and existing homes and businesses.

Until recently, many viewed safe rooms as a luxury for extremely safety-conscious homeowners willing to pay an extra $3,000-$5,000. But Barber thinks that builders and homebuyers in tornado-prone areas will start looking on safe rooms as a basic feature.

"When you look at the kind of devastation that we have in a community like this, you really can't put a price tag on it," Barber said.

Safe rooms can take many forms, such as off-the-shelf shelters like Noirfalise's "Twister Safe." Another approach, Barber said, is to strengthen and reinforce an interior room such as a closet, pantry or bathroom.

Those rooms are already your best bet during a tornado if you don't have anywhere else to go, but putting the "safe" in safe room means using materials, designs and construction techniques that make the room likely to withstand extreme winds and protect occupants from heavy, fast-moving debris.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has issued detailed designs and specifications for various types of safe rooms and shelters.  The guidelines are based on extensive research, including surveys of tornado debris fields in Oklahoma and studies at a Texas Tech facility where scientists test materials and building methods with a pneumatic cannon that can shoot lumber, heavy steel pipes and other dangerous debris at high speeds.

A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mortgage insurance program allows banks to lend homebuyers an additional amount up to $5,000 for installing a safe room built to FEMA specifications.

Copyright 2011 KFVS & University of Missouri Extension Service. All rights reserved.