If you live in an area prone to tornadoes or hurricanes, you should consider building your own storm shelter.
Even if you live in a new “modern” home, the materials used to build the house aren’t likely to withstand the high-speed winds of a tornado or hurricane.
A piece of debris flying at 100 mph will smash right through your home, which is why more than half of storm injuries and death are caused by flying debris. And, in a Force 5 or C5 storm, your home could be blown off its foundation.
Read more about hurricane preparedness.
With these tips, a DIY storm shelter can be made much cheaper than you’d imagine.
How Much Do Storm Shelters Cost to Build?
There are many different types of storm shelters and factors that will affect the cost.
The simplest option for a storm shelter is to buy a prefabricated shelter and have them install it. Some of these can even be “dropped in” to your home or yard in just a few hours.
Prefabricated storm shelters are relatively cheap but aren’t the most attractive or comfortable options.
However, these are probably the best options if you aren’t a contractor and are on a budget. Don’t expect it to cost less than $3000, though.
You are more likely to pay around $5-$12k with shipping and installation.
Here are two examples of prefabricated storm shelters:
- Ground Zero Shelters: They sell outdoor underground storm shelters which come ready-made.
- Safe Sheds: These storm shelters are meant for installation outdoors. They weigh 24,000 lbs and are delivered already fabricated. The delivery truck sets them down somewhere outside your home, and that’s it. Since they are so heavy, they can be put just about anywhere and don’t require a reinforced concrete slab. The cost starts at about $5,000.
These are just two examples of prefabricated storm shelters. Again, if you don’t have experience with construction and are on a budget, this is probably the best route.
Don’t risk making a DIY storm shelter if you don’t know what you are doing!
But, if you are up for the task, you can save even more money by building your storm shelter.
The Two Types of DIY Tornado Shelters
All storm shelters can be divided into two main types: Underground and Above Ground.
Underground storm shelters are usually used in tornado zones and often double as bomb shelters. However, underground storm shelters are generally unsuitable for hurricanes because they can flood.
Underground Storm Shelters
The easiest and cheapest way to build your own storm shelter underground is to put it in your existing basement. You can use the existing basement slab floor (assuming it is reinforced and meets FEMA requirements).
If you plan on digging an underground storm shelter outside of your home, then you will need to pay for ground analysis.
Do NOT skip this step. The title of the person who does this is a geotechnical engineer.
The analysis will tell you things like:
- Whether you have high water tables which could floor your storm shelter
- Whether there’s solid bedrock to dig into (this will cost a lot!)
- Whether the freezing soil during winter will create stress on the storm shelter walls
Above-Ground Storm Shelters
You’ll probably be building an above-ground storm shelter if you live in a hurricane area.
What is important to remember when planning these DIY storm shelters is that they must be independent of the home.
This doesn’t mean they can’t be inside your home, but they must be bolted down to the concrete slab. The storm shelter will remain if the rest of your home is blown away.
Location of the Storm Shelter
Storm shelters can be inside your home or outside your home. There are pros and cons to each of these locations.
Storm Shelter Inside the Home
- You will be able to access the storm shelter faster during a disaster
- You might be able to use existing parts of the home (such as your slab floor) in the construction of the storm shelter, making it cheaper
- This is the best option for new home builds
- It usually requires extensive retrofitting to build a storm shelter inside the home; these renovation costs are expensive
- The storm shelter can take up floor space inside your home
- It will be messier to build the storm shelter inside your home
Storm Shelter Outside the Home
- It is easier to bring materials to the build site
- You can make a larger storm shelter
- You won’t be able to access the storm shelter as easily during an emergency
- The storm shelter can be an eyesore
According to FEMA building codes, outside storm shelters cannot be more than 150 feet from your home’s entrance. If the storm shelter is further away, you won’t be in compliance or eligible for any rebates.
Size of the Storm Shelter
FEMA recommends that you make your storm shelter a minimum of 7 square feet per person for tornadoes. For hurricanes (which last longer than tornadoes), you should calculate at least 10 square feet per person.
If you plan on furnishing your storm shelter or adding a bathroom, you will need more space. Also, account for supplies you want to include in the storm shelter.
When building an underground storm shelter where you need to dig (i.e., not in a basement), don’t forget that you will need to dig a much bigger hole than the actual storm shelter.
This is because you will need a lot of extra room for working.
Also, don’t forget to consider the thickness of the walls when planning the size of your storm shelter.
If using concrete, the walls should be a minimum thickness of 5 inches – which means your storm shelter will take up much more space in the ground than its interior size.
Materials for Your DIY Storm Shelter
The most common materials for storm shelters are:
- Reinforced concrete, poured
- Reinforced concrete blocks
- Fiberglass and welded solid steel
- Wood and steel
The most practical material choice for DIY storm shelter designs is wood/steel. If you have experience working with concrete, you might attempt a DIY shelter with concrete – but these materials are generally left for contractors.
Don’t expect to find storm-rated steel products at your local hardware store. You will need to special order these from steel suppliers.
The Door Is Going to Cost a Lot
When budgeting your DIY storm shelter, start with the door. This will be a huge part of the expense, and it isn’t something you should skimp on.
Typically, steel doors are used for storm shelters. It isn’t just the door that matters, though. It is how the door is bolted to the frame (and the frame better be ready to withstand a storm, too!). You’ll need heavy-duty hinges.
The door should be able to open inwards so you don’t get trapped by any debris piled against the door.
Funding for Building Your Own Storm Shelter
If you are worried about the costs of building a storm shelter, read about funding grants from FEMA. Some programs refund money spent on pre-disaster planning.
Don’t miss out on an opportunity to save money.
Ready to Get Started?
FEMA has comprehensive guides on how to build your own storm shelter.
Do you have a storm shelter? Share your build experience with us!
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Could you use a large,family style kitchen table. Using plywood as the sides and then layering sandbags all around and covering the top as a fall out shelter.
Would be better than nothing in a pinch but I would try to have something more substantial prepped in advance.
I was thinking of the same thing! I’m a tenant and do not have $$ to invest on this. I have a dark scary basement. I was thinking I could put some light in it and was wondering if I could get an old heavy wooden table to place there and sit under. Plywood on sides seem great too. I guess this would be better than being a sitting duck in the bathroom of a home that can disappear with a tornado!
I don’t live in a tornado area but have been curious as to the use of large corrugated drain type pipe, with reinforced concrete ends with steel doors. All buried and provided with a portable toilet, fresh air vents and manual bilge pump in case of excess rains. My understanding of these storms is that the event lasts a short time and really doesn’t require a lot of creature comforts. Perhaps a bench down each side for sitting, a couple of flashlights and a first aid kit. The length of the pipe would dictate the number of persons it would shelter. I have looked at a lot of sites and they all seem over built and designed considering the expected use. Am I wrong or just naive.
I’m no expert with storm shelters, but I would think just about anything you’d bury would work. I’ve thought about getting a roll off dumpster and turning it bottom side up then burying it.
Good idea.Im planing to move to Venice ,FL. soon ,buy a house ,but before even thinking about safe room ,I want to know ,how high is the surface of the lot with my house on it compering to surrounded neighbors area. It would be ideal to be at least couple of feet higher than the street level or around own lot. because in my opinion , water is a lot scarier than the wind.
I’ve been building my own Tornado/Root Cellar. We downsized to a mobile home, on a block crawlspace, that I’ve rebuilt, and we needed a safe place, plus a place to store produce and canned goods. I’ve done most of the work myself, except the excavation, and, since I’m a disabled firefighter, my wife made me hire someone to lay the block walls. I did the rest of the concrete work. The block walls have Durawall reinforcing wire, vertical rebar, and are poured full (4.5 yards). Our shelter is 14’x14′, giving us 12′ 8″ both ways inside. I poured a 7″ concrete top, that floats on the walls. It has 1/2″ and 3/8″ rebar, with 3 cattle panels added too. I figured put that I have in excess of 70,000 lbs of reinforced concrete, sitting on a sandstone base, which drains quite well.
So far, we have around $6000.00 in it, including the block work, excavation, etc.
I’m researching the door now.
For some interesting pictures, Google “storm shelter failures”. Those underground prefab steel shelters can float out of the ground. I don’t think I’ll have that issue.
Great tip about searching for “failures”!
Yes, very nice tips. I really like the idea of researching failures.
Awesome good for you I want to build one in my existing basement we have bad storms coming tomorrow wish I would have started sooner. Thank you
Over a long period, earth is like a liquid and anything you bury can come floating to the surface if not properly anchored. Frost can also act to lift structures out of the ground. There is also the problem of water. You may think your ground is dry, but nature is patient and over the course of years and multiple rains and snows, she can fill your underground shelter with water. Then you have the problem of gases. Radon is probably the most common, depending on where you live. Other gases may also be present in your shelter.
I live in tornado alley. You are correct. Tornadoes don’t last long.
The big problem is… Do you want to run to your shelter at the last minute in the middle of the night or would you rather just go to sleep in the shelter. We always know in advance if a tornado is likely. Also Tornadoes usually come with driving rain.
The thing which most people don’t understand, and frankly I didn’t either before moving to Oklahoma, is the sheer violence of an EF4 or above tornado. The devastation to the town of Moore, OK several years ago was truly awe-inspiring and mind-numbing. Driving around after the tornado had passed, I was staggered by the absolute lack of animals including birds and insects, the overwhelming smells of broken (not sawn) trees and plowed earth, and the absolute heaviness of the air because of those things. That being said, I saw 30 square miles of NOTHING…no standing structures, no trees, no utility poles…just nothing, except for a lone house which was relatively untouched surrounded by fresh earth. Unless you have a reputable company for your above-ground shelter, better go underground for your protection.
Im contemplating building above ground on a poured slab and using 2 x 8 materials doubled for the walls and clad on the outside with 1″ sheet plywood, and 1″ plywood on the inside.
Any comments on this approach?
That’s one for an experienced contractor who can inspect the site! Good luck with it.
not for tornados. Nothing short of steel plate and concrete. If you plan to use concrete in the eight inch cavities then use 1/4 steel plate in the interior. Find a contractor that has built above ground structures in Oklahoma or Kansas or Missouri.
I grew up in the southwestern region of Oklahoma and saw tornados regularly during the summers. We had several destroy barns and concrete buildings on more than one occasion. I have seen bales of wheat straw stuck on the outside of a cinder block building with many straws stuck on the far inside wall (also concrete block) Had a person been in the building they would have been perforated like swiss cheese. We had a telephone pole tossed through a 6 inch wall of concrete and steel rebar of the barn that replaced the corrugated steel barn that was destroyed the year before. Above ground tornado shelters in Oklahoma are built of 1/4-1/2 steel plate with 4 inches of concrete on both sides.
The hyperlink at “Funding for Building Your Own Storm Shelter” is broken.
“If you are worried about the costs of building a storm shelter, read this document at FEMA. Many states will reimburse the costs of constructing a storm shelter.”
If you click on the link, you end up with a 404 error at the FEMA site.
Thanks for that. I updated the link.
Yes. I just tried that. I just rented an old mobile home in south/East Texas because I’m working on contract down there. I grew up in East Texas and saw towns all around me destroyed by naders. I’m terrified with spring coming. I can’t get financed on a new build shelter even tho I make good money. I could pay $1,000/month on it. What can I do to protect my kids this spring that I can get started for $1,000?? I’m desperate! I don’t care what FEMA recommends or what code dictates. Running outside would be safer than being in an old trailer if a tornado hits!!
Home depot sells shelters. If you get a home depot credit card you can finance at 0 % for 24 months.
The one thing I have observed, in these towns that are destroyed, is there always seems to be one structure in the towns that survive. Watertowers. One reason is their weight, but I think it’s the fact that they are round. There isn’t a flat side for the wind to push against. The wind flows over the surface, like an airplane wing.
If I lived in Tornado Alley, I think I’d consider using a dome, or at least a cylindrical structure, if it was above ground. If you can dig, where you are, that would be the best. Since tornadoes are such a short lived event, I’d think you could find a damaged concrete drainage culvert, block up one end completely, and put some type of reinforced door on the other, with several locking lugs, and bury it. It may not be the Ritz, but would be better than a ditch or being inside of a Tornado magnet.
Plan on moving back to Cookeville Tn. 2020.had a 4
Kill 26 people ,flatten
Yeah having that tornado and then covid really did a number on us here in Nashville, but it could have been much worse here, like in your area.
My son purchased a home with an in-ground shelter. The stairs were wooden and rotten. Any ideas on best place to purchase replacement stairs and replacement door? It’s a flat entry to the the shelter.
I’ve been on the net for 2 hrs now just trying to find where to buy/build replacement steps for an underground tornado shelter, haven’t had any luck yet! I love in a mobilehome in KY that has an old cisrn under the front porch! The dimensions for it are 10′ x 12′, and I think it would make a fantastic shelter. But I need to find instructionsideas on how to build steps to get down into it (it now only has a ladder), or where to buy some steps!! I own 2 big dogs that would need to get into it, and I’m too old 68/small 5’1″ to carry them down a ladder! I would love any suggestions on how I can construct steps for it! It hasn’t been used as a cistern for the last 30 years, and is totally dry at all times now. Old cistern pipes have long been taken out of it!
I’m not advocating what you’re doing, but you can buy stair stringers at Lowes.
You can then by 2×6 or 2×8 lumber and cut them to make treads.
Getting in isn’t the only worry – getting out when you need to should be thought out also.
Any handyman service should be able to replace the stairs in just hours.
The door may be the same, depending on its design. I would contact a local handyman. You can find them on marketplace, Craig’s list, and in your local paper. If you can’t find one, I would call construction companies and ask if they know of someone who does minor construction jobs like this.
really great article Thanks