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Why a tornado shelter doesn't reinforce your homeowner's insurance

Victims of the devastating tornadoes in 2011 in Alabama and Missouri are joining other Americans in investing thousands of dollars to install and build shelters and safe rooms – typically the size of a walk-in closet – in or near their homes.

But while these tornado shelters offer peace of mind, they don't make a bit of difference in terms of your home insurance. For instance, home insurance companies don't provide discounts if you have a shelter. Why? Even with its thick concrete walls and its ability to withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour, a shelter won't protect your home from damage or destruction.

“The shelter is really for personal safety. It’s not going to change the dollar losses or anything like that. It’s that safe place where you can get to ride out the storm and minimize the chances of getting hurt,” says Timothy Reinhold, senior vice president of research and chief engineer at the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. “If you’re in one of those shelters, the chances you’re not going to be hurt are extremely high.”

tornado_shelterThat sense of personal safety comes at a price. The cost of a tornado shelter ranges from $2,500 to $7,500, according to the institute.

Each year, about 1,000 tornadoes happen around the country, causing an average of $1.1 billion in property damage and 80 deaths, according to Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. The tornadoes of 2011 were unusual in that they triggered 553 deaths nationwide (the second most in U.S. history), according to the National Weather Service.

Seeking shelter

When deadly tornadoes ripped through Alabama in April 2011, Keith Gwin, his wife and their 16-month-old baby braced for the storms as they watched TV newscasts at their home in Hueytown, Ala.

As a tornado approached their Birmingham suburb, Gwin saw a black cloud straight ahead and debris falling out of the sky.

“I’m thinking, 'This house is not anything compared to this storm. I live in a brick house,'” he recalls. “At that moment, we got down in the basement. All of a sudden it got bright outside, and I thought, ‘Well, we got lucky.’ A quarter of a mile up the road, it killed six people. It was horrible. It was like a bomb went off.”

Three years before, a tornado killed 14 people near Gwin's home. With those two deadly events so close together, Gwin decided to make a change.

“I said, ‘We will have a shelter.’ I found one for my house,” says Gwin, who's a civil engineer. “Your house does not provide adequate protection.”

Since then, Gwin has started his own company, Central Alabama Storm Shelters. Gwin's business is a member of the National Storm Shelters Association, a group that has adopted federal design standards for shelters and safe rooms.

In January 2012, Gwin’s family gathered in their 3-foot-wide by 6½-foot-long shelter – which has chairs, a weather radio, battery-powered lights, water and a first aid kit – when a tornado popped up about 20 miles away a couple of months before the official kickoff of tornado season.

“At 3 in the morning, we all got in the shelter in the basement. My wife said, ‘Are you scared? I said, 'No.' It was like a peace of mind,’” he says.

Since February 2012, Gwin has installed about 30 premanufactured shelters in new and existing homes in Alabama. His shelters start at $5,500, plus a delivery charge.

Riding out the storm

The biggest disadvantage to a tornado shelter or a safe room is the cost.

However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which writes standards for shelters and safe rooms, gives rebates that cover as much as three-fourths of construction and installation costs for residents of two tornado-prone regions -- the South and the Midwest. Federal aid also is being earmarked for creation of community shelters.

In Alabama, shelter installers such as Gwin say the FEMA rebates are coming slowly. Gwin has filled out 40 grant applications; only one has received funding so far.

Where to build

Regardless of who pays for a shelter or safe room, where should you build it? Inside the home, not outside the home, experts say. Being within the home allows homeowners to respond quickly to the sudden threat of a tornado.

Since these shelters are bare-bones, people may be reluctant to take cover in them when a tornado is hovering nearby, says Kirk Mellish, a meteorologist with Atlanta radio station WSB-AM.

Most people install shelters and safe rooms in existing spaces in a house, such as a closet in a basement. The wind itself doesn’t injure or kill, but the debris the wind carries, Mellish says. The wind whips debris at high speeds above ground, so the best protection is below ground.

If being below ground isn’t possible, people should try to put as many walls between them and the outdoors, and avoid windows and glass. Standards from the International Code Council ensure that the storm shelters can resist the impact of a 15-pound 2-by-4 striking a wall at 100 miles per hour.

If a safe room or shelter is not available, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people try to protect their heads because head injuries are a common cause of death from tornadoes. One option is a helmet, which the CDC says can be part of a home tornado preparedness kit. A helmet should not be an alternative to seeking shelter, however.

Mellish says helmets should be kept in a safe spot so that people don’t waste time hunting for them.

“You (could) end up hurt looking for them instead of taking cover,” he says.

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