Storm Shelters

Home storm shelters are becoming more common, due to numerous examples where they have saved peoples lives. These stories have come from across the United States, including Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.


Storm shelters are designed to protect against high winds from natural causes — hurricanes and tornadoes.

Shelters for protection against NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) and home invasions have different requirements.


FEMA uses the term “safe room” to refer to constructions which meet FEMA 320 and 361 criteria; they use the term “shelters” to refer to constructions designed to meet the ICC 500 criteria.

Section 442 of Florida Building Code defines a “Residential Storm Shelter” as “A storm shelter serving occupants of dwelling units and having an occupant load not exceeding 16 persons.” and a “Community Storm Shelter” as  “A storm shelter not defined as a Residential Storm Shelter.”

To Build or To Buy?

When you are riding out a Category 5 hurricane, huddling together with your children in your basement shelter, you won’t want to be wondering if your shelter is properly built. This is why more and more people are buying shelters instead of building them.  Companies which specialize in the design, manufacture, and installation of home storm shelters include Survive-a-Storm Shelters, and Lifesaver Storm Shelters. Other vendors can be found through the National Storm Shelter Association.

On the other hand, your budget might not allow for a professionally built storm shelter and a shelter you can build is better than no shelter at all. Or, you or your structure may have unique requirements which cannot be met by off-the-shelf solutions.

For most people, buying will produce better results than building. If you choose to build your own shelter, however, there are standards available to give you the guidance necessary to build a quality shelter.

Storm Shelter Standards

FEMA 320: Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room For Your Home or Small Business is the preferred standard for the construction of residential storm shelters. FEMA 320 includes Safe Room Construction Plans and Specifications.

The ICC 500 ICC/NSSA Standard For The Design and Construction of Storm Shelters is sometimes used as an alternative to FEMA 320, but it is not freely available.  A useful overview of the ICC 500 standard can be found in Introducing the ICC/NSSA Standard for Design and Construction of Storm Shelters.

FEMA 361: Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms and Florida Statewide Emergency Shelter Plan (SESP) – Appendix G: Guidance for Implementation of Public Shelter Design Criteria provide useful guidance for building community storm shelters.

These standards documents provide a plethora of useful information and advice.  I cannot recommend highly enough that you take the time to read through them.

Storm Shelter Sizing

Proper sizing is determined by answering these questions:

  • How many occupants will be in the shelter? (Remember to include pets!)
  • How long will occupants have to stay in the shelter?

Tornadoes tend to be shorter events than hurricanes, therefore tornado shelters can be smaller than hurricane shelters for the same number of occupants. The ICC 500 standard recommends a minimum of 5 square feet for every healthy occupant of a tornado shelter, and 20 square feet for every healthy occupant of a hurricane shelter. Larger minimums are recommended for wheelchair or bedridden occupants.


Drinking water is the most important supply for a storm shelter.  FEMA recommends storing one gallon of drinking water per person per day that you plan to occupy the shelter.

The next requirement is food.  For compact storage it is difficult to beat MRE’s. I like to add snack foods like Snickers bars to make the experience less unpleasant.

Of course, you will also need a portable toilet in which to place “used” drinking water and MRE’s. Toilet paper and hand wipes will help preserve a sanitary environment in the shelter.

Light will make your stay in the shelter much more organized and pleasant. Avoid candles, as they burn oxygen.  Stick with LED lanterns, as they provide the most usable light with the least battery usage. It is also good to have an AM/FR radio or weather radio to listen to weather reports.

Bedding material is good, because the stress caused by a storm can quickly tire out everyone in the family.

Tomorrow May Be Too Late

If you live in an area which is afflicted by hurricanes or tornadoes, tomorrow may be too late to start building a storm shelter for your family.




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