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Tornado-Proof House? Safe Room Is Better for Purse and Family

Experts advise fortifying closet or bathroom rather than entire home.

ByABC News
May 23, 2011, 8:23 AM

May 23, 2011 — -- People thinking about fortifying their homes against the wind's wrath after seeing the damage caused by this year's rash of powerful, deadly tornadoes should think twice, architects and engineers say.

Though it is possible to build a tornado-proof home, experts say it is probably not worth the expense, which is likely to be at least 20 percent more in construction costs than a normal home, or worth the trouble.

"You're talking about very well designed connections all the way down, very well engineered and very well tied together," said Stan Peterson, a member of the American Institute of Architecture disaster assistance task force.

"You have to build to such high standards that when you try to make the entire house safe, that's not sensible," said Ernst Kiesling, a professor of civil engineering at Texas Tech University and executive director for the National Storm Shelter Association. "It greatly increases the cost [to build] the house."

According to Texas Tech's Wind Science and Engineering Research Center website, a home's walls, roof, windows, doors and garage doors would have to be "missile resistant" for it to be considered tornado-proof. The entire home would have to be able to stop projectiles hurling through the air at 200 mph, depending on the level of the tornado.

Tornado Protection: New Technology

Kiesling said that new products and technology such as ICF -- adding concrete-filled foam blocks and steel reinforcements between a home's walls or roofs to protect against strong winds -- were promising, although they still left people vulnerable to wind pressure and flying debris.

Peterson, who was in Reading, Kansas, assessing damage Sunday after a tornado touched down there, said he was seeing more homes built with ICF in his parts of the country.

"They perform very well" against wind damage and storms, he said. "And there's the benefit as far as insulation."

"It's a very good concept for the walls," Kiesling said. "They can be both structurally good and able to resist intrusion from windborne debris. It's a good concept. People should look into that."

Peterson suggested that instead of building a new home, residents in high-risk areas for tornadoes build a safe room and frame walls with plywood if they don't have a storm shelter or basement. Kiesling said a small safe room doesn't cost very much -- $2,000 to harden and stiffen a room.

On its website, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says these small rooms provide "a very high probability that the occupants of a safe room built according to [our] guidance will avoid injury or death."

"Take an interior room. Turn a bathroom or walk-in closet into a safe room," he said. "If someone is looking to protect their family, then all you have to do is put your family in there."

Peterson said it was the best thing to do.

"Most important thing in disaster relief is to protect life and family," he said.

ABC News' Dan Arnall contributed to this story.