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Safe Rooms: Getting Communities Ready Before Disaster Strikes

The freight-train-like sounds and dark funnel clouds of a tornado are among the most frightening weather phenomena known. Tornadoes can occur in any state atBeth Bartlett any time, but they are most common in the Midwest and Southeast during March and April. They form with little warning and strike with a vengeance. Long-term preparedness is the only defense residents have.

Just ask Beth Bartlett of Del City, Oklahoma. Last spring, a "safe room" built in her home saved her life, as well as her motherís and the lives of their four pets. Their neighborhood was completely destroyed, and a neighbor was killed, during a tornado that struck there. But, they survived thanks, in part, to work the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is doing.

Project Impact

Through "Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities," FEMA is reinventing the way America handles disasters. The strategy is to help communities help themselves before a disaster strikes.

The initiative is about getting businesses and other organizations to work together to head off the potential ravages of a natural disaster, including minimizing a disasterís effects on residents, businesses, and community infrastructure.

Forging a Change

Project Impact began in December 1997 with seven communities participating in the pilot program. Its purpose: to encourage communities to form public/private partnerships to limit potential damage before disasters strike instead of spending millions to pick up the pieces after the fact. Today, more than 120 communities nationwide are participating in Project Impact.

One city where Project Impact is making a difference is Oakland, California, one of the original seven pilot communities. The city established "Project SAFE," a community partnership for "safety and future empowerment." The partnership includes local businesses, citizens, grassroots organizations, the City of Oakland government, the California Office of Emergency Services, and FEMA.

Assemblying a Safe RoomIn the spring of 1998, dozens of student volunteers got Project SAFE rolling by retrofitting over 150 homes in Oakland through a community project called "Project Impact Spring Break." Next, during Project SAFEís "Week of Caring," four volunteer teams of firefighters, AmeriCorps members, and others spread across the city each day to make homes of elderly and low-income residents more disaster-resistant. The teams installed smoke detectors and cupboard latches, strapped water heaters and freestanding cabinets to house frames, and rigged safety releases on window security bars.

Safe Rooms Save Lives

One of the most valuable actions citizens can take to minimize damage from a tornado is to build "Tornado Safe Rooms." The safe room that saved Beth Bartlett and Model Safe Roomher family is a cast-in-place concrete room that normally serves as a roomy closet. Safe rooms can cost as little as $2,000, and can be built above ground or below, within a home or attached to one. But, when constructed according to FEMA specifications, all can withstand winds of up to 250 miles per hour and the impact of objects traveling at 100 miles an hour.


Help is Just a Click Away

The safe room project is part of FEMAís Project Impact. Residents of tornado-prone areas can now get construction plans directly from the Internet by accessing FEMAís Internet site. Once on the site, click on "mitigation," then click on Tornado Safe Rooms. (Comprehensive information about Project Impact is available on the FEMA Internet site as well.)

The construction plans include a 25-page illustrated publication, "Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House," that outlines the basics of in-house safe room shelters, including designs for several different kinds of safe rooms, materials, and construction cost estimates. (You also can order the publication and construction plans free of charge by calling FEMA Publications at [888] 565-3896.)

Clearly, Project Impact and safe rooms are common sense approaches for dealing with disasters before they happen. A disaster-resistant community is able to bounce back from a natural disaster with far less loss of property and much less cost for repairs. And, the investment is well worth the cost. FEMA estimates that for every dollar spent in damage prevention, two dollars are saved in repairs.

For more information about FEMA and Project Impact, during regular business hours, contact FEMAís Public Affairs Office at (202) 646-4600. Round-the-Clock information about FEMA and Project Impact also can be obtained by calling FEMA Fax-on-Demand at (202) 646-FEMA or the FEMA Radio Network at (800) 323-5248.


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