Home sweet bunker
More people are having safe rooms and aboveground shelters installed — and not just to ride out storms.
Many homeowners dream of adding a walk-in closet or home office. Some are installing ones that can withstand winds as strong as 250 mph and, in some cases, the weight of a loaded tractor trailer.
Often made of concrete or steel, the spaces are also aboveground storm shelters meant to replace the cellar or underground structures long used to ride out hurricanes and tornadoes. (Bing Cube: See what new-era storm shelters look like)
Sometimes dubbed "safe rooms," many models are prefabricated units boasting action-movie names such as StormRoom and Iron Eagle II and lead double lives as offices, toolsheds or wine cellars. One model even comes with bullet-resistant Kevlar walls.
After a decade of several high-profile and sometimes devastating hurricanes and tornadoes, more homeowners are turning to the new shelter designs. These typically cost between $4,000 and $15,000 and can be bolted to concrete floors in the garage or even inside the house.
"To me, the ideal location is the master-bedroom closet so that even if you are bedridden, you could get that far," says Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, a nonprofit trade group.
While safe rooms' main mission is to protect inhabitants from wind and flying debris, homeowners also pack them with valuables such as jewelry, important computer data and documents, or even art and gun collections.
Some fancier models, such as DuPont Co.'s StormRoom, which is infused with Kevlar, can be equipped with electricity, wireless reception and keypad entry to function as a panic room in case of intruders.
People who have tested their shelters rattle off weather-survival stories. When a powerful tornado roared through Murfreesboro, Tenn., in 2009, David Glass ducked into his newly installed TornadoSafeRoom, a $4,300 galvanized-steel shelter bolted to the concrete floor of his garage.
Glass waited out the storm in the shelter with his brother-in-law and Glass' two cats, Buggs and Lady Buggs; his wife was at work. They emerged to find the home battered but still standing. Five doors down, though, a neighbor's house was flattened.
Says the 39-year-old Glass of his shelter: "When I bought it, I thought, 'This is crazy — $4,000 just because I'm a scaredy-cat?'" But squirreled away amid first-aid supplies and a battery-powered TV/radio, he says he felt like "the smartest person in the neighborhood."
- MSN Money: 5-minute guide to home insurance
While there's no federal mandate for homes in storm-prone regions to have shelters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which publishes safe-room-construction guidelines, says "an increasing number of homeowners are building safe rooms" as protection from hurricanes as well as tornadoes. Its shelter guidelines are now its most requested publication.
Article continues below
In some storm-prone states, homeowners can obtain FEMA grants to help pay for qualifying shelters. Virgil and Doris Ott of Yellville, Ark., say they received $1,000 in grant money to install a $7,000 DuPont StormRoom in an office near the garage. They've used it a half-dozen times in three years, including in 2008, when a tornado spared their tiny town but ruined nearby Gassville, Ark.
"It's a security blanket — nice to know you've got it to run to," Doris Ott says. "And I love it better than being down in a hole."
In many homes, storm rooms are cleverly disguised. When Betty and Michael Wilson of Lonoke, Ark., built their dream house two years ago, their contractor constructed a $5,000 custom, fireproof storm room that could serve as a home office.
The room looks like any other in the home: The floor is tiled, the door is fitted with trim and the walls sport a textured concrete surface. The only hint of its true identity: a steel door with four locks.
Richard Gallop recently installed a $5,995 Iron Eagle II from stormsaferoom.com beside his Martinsville, Va., carport, painted it white and wrote "ICE" on the side to mimic a commercial ice chest. His wife then planted a wisteria vine nearby to help hide the shelter.
- MSN Lifestyle: Stylish storage
Many people grew up with backyard or basement cellars that could provide cover in storms. While in-ground shelters remain popular, more designs have shifted in the past decade to accessible aboveground models that wouldn't force occupants to stray far during disasters.
The devastating May 1999 tornado outbreak, which involved 74 tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kansas, sparked a rush of new shelter-makers. Kiesling says he estimates there may be 250 of these companies today.
Most units are made of steel or concrete and have ventilation holes, a bolted door and built-in seating. Some homeowners outfit their units with battery-powered lamps, whistles to alert rescuers if the shelter is covered in rubble, radios, water supplies and a portable toilet.
At least 5 square feet are typically allotted per person for tornadoes and 10 feet or more for hurricanes, during which occupants may be inside longer, Kiesling says. Sizes often range from around 50 square feet to 200 square feet or more on larger models.