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Tornadoes are one of the more devastating natural disasters that can hit us, and they do so with little warning. Granted, not every part of the country is subject to these disasters, but there are always a few outliers which appear in places where there’s never been a tornado before. I remember more than 30 years ago when the first tornado hit in Denver, Colorado—something that had never happened before.
One of the challenges in dealing with tornadoes is that unlike hurricanes, the warning we get for tornadoes is measured in minutes, not days. Even then, we really don’t know where those tornadoes will hit and which homes or other properties might be destroyed. I’ve seen many a case of homes destroyed by tornadoes while their neighbors homes sat there unscathed.
While tornadoes can cause massive devastation, there are things we can do to make our homes more tornado resistant. Taking a few measures to help increase your home’s chances of survival could prevent you from losing everything.
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One thing we need to take into consideration is that many homes damaged by tornadoes aren’t directly struck by the tornado. They’re just close enough that the high winds still cause damage. In many cases, the damage occurs to parts of the home that are ripe for the picking because they aren’t properly built or maintained.
Even so, we need to take into consideration that winds generated by a tornado can top out at over 300 MPH. That’s fast enough to pick up entire cars and throw them around like children’s toys. Making a home that will withstand that is quite an engineering task.
There’s a difference between building a tornado-proof home and tornado-proofing a home that already exists. If you live in an area where tornadoes are common and you’re planning on building a house, then you might want to consider using tornado-proof construction techniques.
If you already own your home, those techniques aren’t available to you. Rather, you need to do what you can to try and minimize the damage that a tornado can do.
Building a tornado-proof home is essentially like building a bunker above the ground. Basically, the home needs to be built of foot-thick reinforced concrete. No windows could be put in such a home and the doors would have to be solid steel with reinforced frames. Beefy locking mechanisms would have to be used on those doors or the passing wind could literally suck the door open.
To make that plan even better, it would be a good idea to make the home a concrete dome, lowering the wind resistance of the home as well as eliminating vertical surfaces for objects to hit.
An easier way to build with concrete is to use insulated concrete forms (ICF). These are essentially blocks that are assembled, then filled with concrete. The blocks then act as insulation for the walls, a function which concrete alone doesn’t fulfill well.
Making a Home Tornado-Resistant
While making a home totally tornado-proof requires building a new home, using different techniques, there are things that can be done to any home which will make it more tornado resistant. Granted, a wood-frame home isn’t going to survive a direct hit by a tornado; but that’s not what we’re after. In the case where there’s a near miss, making the home more tornado resistant is well worth doing as it will help the home survive.
The primary key to making a home tornado resistant is to tie everything together and then tie that to a secure concrete foundation. The term that’s used is a “continuous load path” and it refers to stress being placed on any structural part of the home having a direct connection to the foundation.
This is accomplished by adding reinforcing connections that tie the roof to the walls and the walls to the foundation. Even within the walls themselves, the top plates need to be attached to the studs with more than just nails, and the nails attached to the bottom plates with more than just nails. Metal ties, along the line of hurricane clips, are the prime tool used in making the structure of the home more hurricane resistant.
Even with this continuous load path, there are other major concerns. Video evidence of homes that have been destroyed by tornadoes show that if the wind manages to break a hole into your home, it can destroy it from the inside, much like a bomb exploding. So it is necessary to strengthen the various potential weak points that the wind could use to make that first hole.
One such entry point is doors. The weak point on most doors is the frame, not the door itself. The door frame for most home entry doors is pine, and the part of the frame that the hinges and deadbolt screw into is usually no more than ¾” thick.
That needs to be reinforced, with the screws and the deadbolt going into the framework behind the door frame along with metal plates that are securely attached through the frame and into the structure behind, such as would happen with security striker plates. Even though the main security comes from the structure behind the frame, make sure the frame is firmly attached to that structure as well.
An even worse entry point is the garage doors. Most garage doors today are skinned in thin aluminum, with little structure. These designs can only withstand 50 PSI of pressure, perhaps even less with a two-car wide door. Adding either metal (preferred) or wood bracing can greatly increase the strength of these doors, but it may also require readjustment or even replacement of the springs that help raise the doors.
Stiffening kits exist for strengthening garage doors. But if tornadoes are coming and the garage doors aren’t already braced, adding a couple of 2x4s vertically, attached to the wall and the floor will give those doors a lot more strength.
Generally speaking, the windows on a home are the weakest point of any home. Normal home windows can only withstand a wind speed of 77 MPH without shattering. As all tornadoes have wind speeds higher than that, those windows won’t do a thing to help the survivability of the home.
Nevertheless, there are several options which can help make the windows of a home stronger and more tornado resistant. The first is to buy impact-resistant windows. While more expensive than other types of windows, if the windows on a home are going to be replaced anyway, this is a good option to consider.
Another option is to install window security film on the inside of the windows. While this film was originally developed for protection against theft, it makes any window more impact resistant. In the case that the window is cracked by something striking it, the film holds the glass together and in the frame, eliminating the dual problems of flying glass and allowing the wind into the home. While I cannot find any data on how well security film protects against tornadoes, it is clear that it does offer some protection.
Shutters are another option to consider, either those attached to the house, (which can be closed in the event of a tornado-carrying storm), or pieces of plywood that can be installed, much as people do for hurricanes. The only problem with this option is that it requires having enough advance notice to take action and close the shutters.
Have a Family Shelter
Regardless of whether you are able to make your home more tornado resistant, you need some sort of plan for protecting your family. Ideally, this will include some sort of shelter where your family can take shelter in the event of tornado sightings in your area.
The best place to shelter from a tornado is underground, whether that means in a root cellar, an underground bunker or storm shelter, or just in the basement of the home. Getting below ground gets you below the tornado’s activity; so even if your home is destroyed, you’ll probably be okay.
If you don’t have the ability to go underground, either inside your home or in a storm shelter, then find the safest place in your home and designate that your tornado shelter. This would be in the center of the home, in a room without windows. Ideally, at least one of the walls should be a load-bearing structural wall, although you’re better off being surrounded by them. If the walls aren’t strong enough, it would be worthwhile reinforcing them, as well as reinforcing their connection to the floor and the rafters.
Stock whatever area you designate as a tornado shelter with several days worth of basic supplies (food and water), as well as a radio, flashlight, some cash and copies of your family’s important papers (preferably in a metal safe). If you can, put some tools in there so you can cut or pry your way out, if necessary. Practice tornado drills with your family so everyone is well trained in getting to the shelter quickly.
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