Can We Build Tornado-Proof Houses?

by James Wallace Harris, 12/15/21

The recent tornado in Mayfield, Kentucky has me worried. I’m old, retired, and have health issues, so having my home destroyed would be immensely stressful. I feel so sorry for people in disasters like this, but especially when I see old people having to be helped because they are so helpless. I fear being helpless.

One thing I noticed in the pictures from Mayfield is some buildings survived the devastation. My friend Connell told me after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami they realized how houses were poorly constructed and made changes to the building codes. The newer homes are much more hurricane-resistant. I’m wondering if the same kind of codes can be applied to protect homes from tornadoes.

However, I don’t want to wait for new building codes or move to a new house. I doubt there are practical retrofit possibilities. One of the things that trouble me about tornadoes and other forms of weather damage is having to leave my home. If the house is a complete loss, there’s no choice, but what if there’s only some damage? Say a tree crushes one side of the house. I’d want to rebuild, and I wouldn’t want to leave my partially good house either.

So I’ve been thinking of something else. People use to have storm cellars. What if I could have a tiny home or a mother-in-law wing addition to my house that was built to strict specifications, could it survive a tornado? Something that Susan, the cats, and I could live in while our house was being rebuilt, or when storms are about to happen. Would this be practical? And how much would such a building cost?

Is Tornado Alley Shifting to the Southeast?

I’m starting to see reports that Tornado Alley is shifting to the east, with some maps putting it where I live in Memphis, Tennessee. Other people are saying it’s not shifting with widening.

This article says tornado alley is an outdated concept and suggests a new shape.

Then I saw this article about high winds. Now that’s pretty scary.

How big would a lifeboat house or addition have to be? Should it be partially underground? Or could it be built with concrete blocks and a steel frame to withstand most weather-related disasters? It would need to have a bathroom and shower, but otherwise, everything could be in one room, including a kitchenette. Should we assume water and sewer systems survive most disasters? What about gas lines? Or should it be totally self-sufficient?

This is something to think about. Maybe it’s a business opportunity for a new industry. Could a prebuilt pod be designed and mass-produced to reduce the cost of such a need? Basically, a tank-like RV or small house trailer that could be partially buried might be a good design.

Remember the bomb shelter craze of the 1950s and 1960s? Maybe we’ll have a new climate change shelter craze?


11 thoughts on “Can We Build Tornado-Proof Houses?”

  1. When I lived in Norman Oklahoma were my husband was a research scientist and worked at the Severe Storms Lab (associated with the University and NOAA) there were regular tornadoes. That’s why the Lab was situated there. We had community storm shelters. Ours was at the Junior High School which was half-way dug into the ground. They have these where I am now in North Dakota, too but more often people have their own basements.

    Dorothy’s aunt and uncle had a little storm shelter in The Wizard of Oz.

    These places are often advertised on little signs on the main streets all around town. When there is a Tornado Watch – (this is whenever the weather is ripe for a tornado) most folks make sure they’re close enough to get somewhere safe. If the “Tornado Watch” turns into a “Tornado Warning” that means a tornado has been sighted in some way and you should right then seek shelter.

    My daughter has a great basement for this – it’s stocked with everything but a kitchen – there are lights and a bathroom and a TV to see where the tornadoes are. (They can be all around.) They bring food down. (I’ve had to use that basement a couple times during visits – now I go in my little bathroom with no windows.)

    One night my mom and I were in my house (no basement) and the sirens ALL went off. (This means the phone alert, too.) So we went in the living room and turned on the TV. Yes, there was a Warning and the sirens had gone off and the weatherman was telling different towns around to “seek shelter now.” When he said Northwood he went on, “It’s too late . Hunker down.” (omg!).

    So I sat there and listened to the storm for a couple hours. It was styled right above us and never did touch down that time. Back in 2007 a tornado plowed through the whole town but only one person died. The school and a big church and a block of downtown were destroyed. A big old oak tree fell down into what is now my living room. My daughter had had her baby the day prior and one bedroom in her house was destroyed. She came home from the hospital the next day. The hospital was about 30 miles away but they’d prepared by moving all patients out of rooms and into the corridors to protect them from flying glass. (And there were TV crews all over outside of town – which was blocked off and only Red Cross and cops and firetrucks etc could get through for about 2 days.) – I wasn’t here – I was in California.

    I have lots of stories to tell about tornadoes. Yes, they seem to be getting more frequent but that might be because of the news (but how long can we say that?). I personally think it’s climate change.

    “But the weather service also said damage appeared to be consistent with an F3 tornado capable of producing winds as strong as 206 mph, according to preliminary estimates.”

    Northwood’s tornado back in 2007 was a level F4.


  2. Many or most houses in the US are built using wood, right? Here in Germany, we don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes but build houses nearly always with stones. Strange inversion of risk assessment!

  3. I’ve long believed the answer for high wind events (tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones) is a dome. Half below ground (1.5 story) the rest above for light, air, view, etc. Above ground portion steel reinforced, of course. Self-contained power generation and water utility. Fully livable year round. If the above ground is fireproofed, it wold survive forest fires too. You get the idea.

    1. Yes, That’s how they do it many place – Norman, Oklahoma. But some places have basements as a standard thing on almost all houses and that works.

      There is no building material which will stand up to the full force of a level 5 tornado. The winds can get up to 300 mph (or more) and whatever it touches is either airborne or it explodes and pieces are airborne. This is dangerous because a piece of glass becomes a spear. But it happens with buildings and trucks and whatever is around because the wind is kind of crazy – it doesn’t hit straight on but twists around.

      Back in the 1960s when the scientists weren’t qtuie sure how a tornado worked they borrowed Disney’s Wizard of Oz movie and interviewed the set designers/engineers. “How did you do that?” And they got specifics which they developed into Dopplar Radar and algorithms.

      When I was in Texas the main issue was hurricanes and the resort builders would put them up knowing full well they wouldn’t be able to withstand a level 4 storm (wind speed 150 mph). They put them up and got good warning system in place and then the insurance covered the loss. Hurricanes give 3 days of warning – Tornadoes give a good amount if you know the weather conditions. but if you don’t they give almost none – they appear.

  4. Perhaps the answer to level 5 tornadoes and hurricanes is to work on changing the climate back to a more benign level. Climate scientists have been warning us for decades about the impacts of global warming on weather. More heat means more powerful storms. Of course, many people don’t believe in Science and dismissed the warnings from “tree-huggers” but now the chickens have come home to roost. This isn’t an engineer problem, this is a climate problem.

  5. In your comments on tornado–proof housing, you are neglecting another consideration, unless my ADD caused me to miss it. I live in the OKC metro, pretty much ground zero for Tornado Alley. You will find very few basements here, as the soil conditions make it difficult and expensive to have underground shelter more complex than a small concrete box only slightly below grade. The topsoil over much of this area is maybe 8″ deep. Put your hands together flat, with the thumbs touching and note how wide your hands are together. That is about how deep the soil is. Below that is a clayey sandstone that decays into the “Red Dirt” so famous here. It heaves and subsides with changes in humidity, so things that are buried often don’t stay buried, either. Any shelter that is going to be tornado-proof needs to be either very massive with sloped sides, or underground. It is going to be expensive either way. I live here in a stick-built house. The only recommendation for this style of house building is that it is cheap and fast. It is not particularly sturdy, however. Honestly, I can’t see that changing.
    The folks who do have a full basement also have trouble keeping it dry, and the concrete shelters set into the ground tend to fill with water during a storm unless you have good drainage where they’re installed. The answer to your title question is “Yes, but it will be very expensive.”

    1. That’s true Bill, basements are the solutions in a lot of places. But what about above-ground shelters? Or just better building codes that that in the future houses are built to tornado-proof standards? After Hurricane Andrew, the standards were toughened in Miami, and my friend down there tells me it’s made a huge difference. Since we’re not going to change the weather we need to adapt to it.

      1. I was underground at school during the May 3rd, 1999 tornado that tore up so much of the state of Oklahoma. That was the monster tornado that caused the Fujita scale to be revised. I was taking a physics class at the time. I calculated the force of that storm, and assuming I didn’t mess it up, that storm was putting about 50,000 pounds of force on whatever it hit. The strongest concrete made, IIRC, is rated for 5000 pounds force. They make and sell storm shelters here to go above ground, and so far, that particular brand has a 100% survival rate. Friends of mine who were in their house in the direct path of that storm saw their neighbor’s van blow through their living room. In order to make a shelter that can take a direct hit from such a storm, it’s going to need to be massive enough that force of that magnitude won’t move it. Sloped sides and at least partially underground are probably also necessary. Yes, we can do that. It will be a great deal more expensive. That storm was doing winds of 350mph, IIRC. Also, we’ve been living in this area for well over 100 years, and this was the first storm we noticed that was that fast, that strong. As you noted, the climate has been changing for quite a long time. This is the company that advertises 100% survival of their shelters here in central Oklahoma. They’re less than a mile from my house. These are some of the shelters available through Home Depot: note that even the “cheaper” shelters are several thousand dollars. Now think about making a whole house tornado safe.
        I’ve lived through and experienced several hurricanes, too. One hurricane can spawn thousands of tornados. I was in South Carolina for Hurricane Hugo, in 1989. That thing came inland over 100 miles before it started to break up. Really tore up the state, too.

        Be careful what you ask for. You may get it. A 20×20 tornado-proof house, built above ground, could easily be $100K, and I would have a hard time living in a house that small. YMMV!

  6. e build tornado proof houses all the time in the USA. They are monolithic dome structures.

    1. I believe they work well, but they’re fugly! 😉 Bet there are all kinds of problems having them built in place of “normal” housing, too. My small city in the OKC metro requires brick-veneer balloon structures. They are most unsafe in a tornado, and we’re in the heart of Tornado Alley.

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