By Rich Fleetwood – Founder/Director of
Written 6/19/14


This article starts with a very recent event…Friday, June 6th to be precise. It involves tornadoes, super cells, hail and dangerous lightning, and shelter…or lack thereof. It involves my only daughter and her two small children, alone and home in the middle of the night as a tornadic storm bears down on them in rural southeastern Colorado.

I live in rural central Wyoming. My daughter and her family live in southeastern Colorado…the breeding ground for many deadly tornadoes that travel into Oklahoma and the Midwest as terribly effective large scale storms, with vast numbers of dead and injured annually and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage every year.

On that Friday night, storm systems were developing over the eastern half of Colorado, and after an afternoon phone call from her, I was aware of potential super cells and probable tornado events in that region. My concern was very high. She lives in a very rural area of agricultural land, and has no storm shelter.

As the evening wore on, I repeatedly checked her local NEXRAD radar, from the national weather service NEXRAD site in Pueblo, when the closest approaching storm produced a verified tornado approaching from the west.

She had a weather radio obtained many months ago, and was aware the moment the tornado warning went off…yet, she had nowhere to go, and so huddled with her babies in the central hallway of their home. As she waited, the strength of the storm…the rain, lightning and thunder, and then hail, began to beat against the outside of her home.

I zoomed in on the radar immediately around her, and watched live as that storm cell tracked towards her, and then veered south of her home, by only 2 miles. As the storm cell passed south of town and began to fall apart, the tornado warning was cancelled.

There was nothing she could have done…if that twister had not changed directions away from her, other than to stay connected to her via her cell phone, with which she could see her local radar on the tiny screen.

If she had become a victim, I would have been the last person to ever talk to her. I cannot tell you how horribly this would have affected me.  If she had had a safe storm shelter, I would not have worried nearly as much. She doesn’t have a shelter at this moment, and I intend to fix that this year.

Sadly, this kind of severe weather scenario is repeated weekly, all over the US, with many living by the luck of the draw, and not being in the path of the worst storms, while others suffer injury and death.  Having spent many years in the south, my family and I dealt with tornadoes way too frequently, including being just out of the direct path of an EF5 tornado on April 8th, 1998 in Jefferson County, Alabama, while dozens who weren’t, died or lost everything all around them one Wednesday evening after dark. Not the first weather disaster we dealt with, but I won’t mention the hurricanes, lightning strikes, house fire, flooding, and other natural disasters we’d had experience with. Tornadoes, however, I know all too well.

During those years in north central Alabama, we had no shelter except a very solid interior room in the center of a 100 year old house that we used as a pantry, and which we spent time in every spring. That was the beginning of my personal research into everything safe shelter related, and why I do what I do now. On my website, I offer dozens of free shelter plans, all of which could make effective storm shelters and more. Get them here…

Download and print every plan, and place them in a three ring binder. With all that information, you should be able to understand the basics of a shelter, and duplicate with your own time and budgeted income your very own shelter. There is no excuse now for not taking action.

The rare and unusual twin tornadoes that struck northeastern Nebraska on Monday, June 16, destroying most of the small town of Pilger, Nebraska were extreme weather events that are even more deadly than a much more common EF4 or EF5 tornado, and because of the twisting, rotating large meso storm cell, the damage can be much greater than a single twister. Even with mega tornado events, a storm shelter is your only real chance to survive, should you wind up in the path.


Here’s what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has to say about the weather phenomena known as tornadoes…


Because a tornado is part of a severe convective storm, and these storms occur all over the Earth, tornadoes are not limited to any specific geographic location. In fact, tornadoes have been documented in every state of the United States, and on every continent, with the exception of Antarctica (even there, a tornado occurrence is not impossible). In fact, wherever the atmospheric conditions are exactly right, the occurrence of a tornadic storm is possible. […]
However, some parts of the world are much more prone to tornadoes than others. Globally, the middle latitudes, between about 30° and 50° North or South, provide the most favorable environment for tornado genesis. This is the region where cold, polar air meets against warmer, subtropical air, often generating convective precipitation along the collision boundaries. In addition, air in the mid-latitudes often flows at different speeds and directions at different levels of the troposphere, facilitating the development of rotation within a storm cell. Interestingly, the places that receive the most frequent tornadoes are also considered the most fertile agricultural zones of the world. […] In terms of absolute tornado counts, the United States leads the list, with an average of over 1,000 tornadoes recorded each year.

This image from NOAA presents to you the average annual number of tornadoes in each state. Note that the majority these deadly storms occur in the Midwest and southeast USA, with Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska presenting the worst threat, after the Lone Star State of Texas, with 155 annually.

The next image is from NOAA as well, with the current number of tornado storms so far in 2014 at 580 reported storms, with 35 deaths documented so far. Look at the numbers for 2011, when the US had historic outbreaks, with 553 deaths and almost 1700 twisters for the year…almost twice the number of storms before and after that year.



The key components of a safe storm shelter are strong walls, asolid foundation, back filling, concrete and steel rebar. Pre-manufactured storm shelters of all sizes and shapes are available as well. Storm shelters can be above ground, below ground, or halfway in between.

There are certain physical components that you are always going to need for whatever shelter you wind up with. In this article, we’re going to focus on building a very basic but effective storm shelter that has a long track record of working well. Let’s use FEMA’s tech report 320 as a guide to understand what makes a good storm or tornado shelter.  (Download Here

  • Figure out the best location in, under, or around your home.
  • Decide on above or below ground, or semi-buried
  • Draw simple plans up of size needs, and material list
  • Source your cement, cinder blocks, rebar, mortar, steel door, and basic lumber for cement floor and roof forms
  • Start digging, after making sure you’re not digging into wires, sewer or utility lines
  • Form and pour your foundation, with rebar as the framework
  • Remove the forms when dry, and start stacking your cinder blocks, setting rebar vertically within the openings. Fill each layer with mortar to hold the rebar in place
  • Top out your block walls, and install your steel door and frame, securely within the blocks
  • Build a framework (2×6 boards) with 5/8” plywood covering for inside the walls, and above the upper edge of the block wall at least 4 to 6 inches, again with rebar crisscrossing the pad for support.
  • Pour your roof, and let it dry completely, then remove the inner supports
  • Using water seal such as Hydra Block to seal both inner and outer walls of the shelter, to keep groundwater out. Let dry.
  • Fill the base of the outer walls with perforated pipe and coarse rock, creating a french drain over a bed of pea gravel (helps drain standing water)
  • Back fill the outer walls and compact the earth. If possible, bury the top of the shelter with at least a foot of earth, and plant grass or shrubbery to help naturally secure the dirt covering of your shelter.
  • Check your shelter regularly for water leakage. Use dehumidifiers or sump pumps to keep dry and safe
  • Use the shelter ONLY for shelter…not storage. Add interior lighting and 12 volt or 110v power for energy.


Over several decades, the US government had many names for the national disaster preparedness agency network. We know it today as FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) but previous names include FCDA, DCPA, DOD, and (see FEMA-107 report here ).

Starting in the late 1950’s, these agencies began producing a series of fallout shelter plans for all budgets and needs. Any of these shelters would have worked effectively as a fallout shelter, and most will work as very good storm shelters. The key thing is action and building, instead of waiting until it’s needed. Plans are no good when the purple sky to your west is moving towards you with who knows what inside the rain shield, hail, and lightning.


The shelter provides a shell of protection in any high wind event. You’ll need to add couple of things to the shelter during construction. You’ll need an air inlet so you’ll have fresh air when the door is closed. You’ll need some light inside for the moments you’ll actually be in the shelter, and  flashlight or two will work find.

You’ll need strong steel latches, hinges, and fool proof locks to secure the door if you find yourself within the core of the tornado. Finally, a few pieces of equipment, should you find your exit blocked by debris after a storm’s passage. This can include bottle jacks, or hand crank jacks, plus wooden posts thick enough to use as beams for leverage.


Texas Tech designed shelters survived direct hits by the F5 tornado that struck Oklahoma City on May 3rd, 1999. This tornado produced the strongest winds ever measured by scientists during a tornado, using a truck mounted with a portable Doppler radar unit. Early reports and news stories claimed winds of 318 miles an hour at its peak. From a Wikipedia article about this particular storm,

The storm produced the most significant tornado of the outbreak, which touched down just southwest of the Grady County community of Amber at 6:23 p.m. CDT and headed northeast, parallel to Interstate 44, just after another tornado had passed over the airport in Chickasha. The storm continued moving northeast, destroying the community of Bridge Creek and crossing I-44 just north of Newcastle. The tornado then crossed the Canadian River, passing into far southern Oklahoma City. As it passed over Bridge Creek, around 6:54 p.m., a Doppler On Wheels mobile Doppler weather radar detected wind speeds of 301 ± 20 mph (484 ± 32 km/h) inside the tornado at an elevation of 105 ft (32 m)

Tornado near Minco.


Read the FEMA Building Practices Assessment Team report of this historic storm, and learn what kind of damage can be created by an F5, and what building practices are best used for the strongest methods of safe sheltering.

This storm hit a highly populated area, and there were several homes in the path that had installed the Texas Tech shelter design, and in the heart of the storm track, they survived a direct hit, saving dozens of lives. The shelters were all that was left on the cement foundation after this storm passed.


In building your shelter, you’ll need to purchase and plan for the following supplies locally, after you’ve developed a design that fits your needs.

  • Concrete
  • cinder blocks
  • rebar
  • steel door (see storm doors at this site )
  • air vent
  • Locks
  • Waterproofing
  • Labor ( you can do all the building yourself, or have contractors build or install )


The US is extremely well known for some of the most severe weather on the planet. Technology and development of tools such as weather radar, remote sensors, digital cameras and video technology are used with great effect every year. Tornado Warning times for severe storms are now in hours, and even a day or two when weather conditions begin to set up potential conditions which are recognized as preludes to disaster. Weather radios, smart phone apps, and connected radio and TV networks to the Emergency Broadcast System are able to deliver warnings to a huge audience in seconds. Warning Siren technology has also increased in the last generation and their use when needed still saves lives every month.

Even with all that ability, some folks will always miss a warning, ignore the weather potential, and become victims no matter how much the rest of us try to persuade them to pay more attention. We call these people Darwin Award Nominees. Sad, really.

Use your senses and all the tools at your disposal to stay safe and alive in storm country. There is just no excuse these days.  With the ability to operate a shovel, stack blocks and fill holes, you have all you need to build a safe shelter in your home or yard. The rest can be done over time, and within your budget. It’s up to you to take the first step. Now, what’s stopping you?

Updated: August 2, 2014 — 11:05 pm

The Author

Rich Fleetwood

Rich is the founder of SurvivalRing, now in it's 24th year, author of multimedia CDs and DVDs, loves the outdoors, his family, his geeky skill-set, and lives in rural southern Wyoming, just below the continental divide (long story, that...). Always ready to help others, he shares what he learns on multiple blogs, many social sites, and more. With a background in preparedness and survival skills, training with county, state, and national organizations, and skills in all areas of media and on air experience in live radio and television, Rich is always thinking about the "big picture", when it comes to helping individuals and families prepare for life's little surprises.

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