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This article says tornado alley is an outdated concept and suggests a new shape.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


5 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.

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