Building your own storm shelter is critical if you live in an area prone to tornadoes or hurricanes (or even typhoons if you aren’t based in the US). It doesn’t matter what type of home you live in. Whether you’re in a new house, an old house, an apartment building, or if you live in a modular home – if the storm is big enough, you will need access to a storm shelter (or you’ll need to evacuate) to keep your family safe when high winds come whistling your way.
No matter how strong your walls are, unless you live in a castle (or maybe an underground bunker), 100mph winds can throw stray chunks of debris that will tear through your house like a bowling ball knocks pins over. Strong winds can destroy your house – that’s just a fact. In a strong storm, hiding under a table won’t do you much good either. If your windows are broken by winds or debris, the table you’re hiding under might go flying as well unless its nailed to the ground.
Those of you who have experienced large hurricanes or tornadoes know what we’re talking about. Being in the midst of a powerful storm of any kind is truly a terrifying experience – one where you feel like you have no control over what might happen.
This is why a storm shelter is necessary.
Cost of a Storm Shelter (for Tornadoes and Hurricanes)
A storm shelter is typically built outside of your own home, somewhere on your property so that you can quickly access it in case of a storm. If you’re worried about your budget, you should know that you can build a DIY storm shelter for relatively little – only a few thousand dollars. Alternatively, you can construct a top-of-the-line storm shelter for tens of thousands of dollars if you have the means.
It also depends on how much you DIY and how much you’re planning to pay professionals to do it for you. We’re all aware that getting contractors to do a job can be an expensive proposition – on the other hand, if you DIY it and do a shoddy job, that won’t just cost you money – it’ll be a waste of money – plus it could endanger your family because you’re taking shelter in what you think is a safe place, when in reality its dangerous because its poorly constructed.
On the other hand, if you’re a very experienced DIYer, or if you have construction/building experience, then you could end up saving money by building a DIY storm shelter yourself.
In short, what we’re trying to say is – the cost will depend on 1. what you’re comfortable DIYing yourself 2. what kind of shelter you want to build. A state of the art hurricane bunker could cost tens of thousands (or more). A completely DIY tornado shelter might only cost a few hundred or a few thousand at most, especially if its one that you bolt on to the concrete walls of your basement. Pre-fab or shipping container shelters can have wildly varying prices depending on quality and installation. Basically, there’s a wide variety of choices that you can make that will lead to it being cheaper or more expensive – so its difficult for us to tell you exactly how much it might cost.
We want just want to emphasize that building a secure and safe storm shelter is not an easy DIY project. We strongly urge you to turn to hire a professional unless you really know what you’re doing.
The Benefits of a Storm Shelter
Why do you need a storm shelter? Well, not every house is equipped for the brutal reality of a raging storm. In fact, most houses aren’t. Even in places where storms are common – Florida, New Orleans, or Tornado Alley – the houses there might be built to withstand “typical storms”, but there is still a chance that some freak storm could rip the house to shreds, right off its foundation and into the next state. Not every house is built to be stormproof, and relatively few houses are built to withstand so called “superstorms” (think Katrina or Harvey).
If your house comes with a built in storm shelter, that’s a start. However, one thing to think about – if the storm shelter is attached to the house, if something in your house collapses, you could get “stuck” in the shelter for days (or weeks) due to heavy debris. The best and safest method is a detached storm shelter, purpose-built to keep you and your family secure if and when the “storm of the century” (we’ve had a few of those already these past few years) comes blowing down your doors.
Of course, a quality storm shelter has a secondary purpose. If you take your time, spend the money, and build a first-class storm shelter, you can also use it as a survival bunker – not just for storms, but for any kind of disaster. Build it with a lot of space and you can stock shelves with supplies, rations, and survival tools. Keep the shelter covered and discrete and don’t tell the neighbors. You’ll have yourself a safe place to lay low if sh/t hit the fan.
If you live in an urban area and don’t have your own land available, sometimes apartment buildings have built in storm shelters, and sometimes public facilities will be turned into makeshift shelters in advance of a large enough storm.
Above-Ground Shelter vs Underground Shelter
When it comes to building yourself a storm shelter, you can do it one of two ways. You have an above-ground shelter or an underground shelter. While both can work, most experienced survivalists highly discourage building an above-ground shelter. Even if you reinforce your shelter with thick walls, a steel blast door, and have your shelter bolted to a concrete slab, it could still suffer damage in a powerful enough storm.
Plus, if your shelter is visible then people know it’s there, which might be fine if you’re just looking to build a storm shelter, but it doesn’t make much sense if your shelter is also going to double as a survival bunker (where discretion is highly recommended, particularly if you’re storing valuable stuff inside).
Underground shelters offer complete protection from tornadoes and the destruction they wield. Even if your entire house is wrecked, your underground shelter will be fine. For all the destruction we’ve seen caused by hurricanes and tornadoes, have you ever heard of a storm destroying a subway station?
On the other hand, you might think that hiding in your basement will work fine as a storm shelter – and that’s generally true, especially for less powerful storms. However, for the most powerful storms (the ones that we really want to prepare for), that’s not true. A powerful enough tornado or hurricane can rip your house clean off the ground, exposing everything (and everyone) in your basement. Once your basement is exposed, it can be damaged with falling debris, or strong winds can lift things straight up off the ground. This leaves you vulnerable and in danger.
If your basement is secured away from the rest of the house with a strong door that’s built into the floor (not a vertical door, but a “trap-door” that’s at ground level) then it might make a sufficient storm shelter. But if your basement is like most basements – accessed with a normal wooden door and stairs downwards – then any storm powerful enough to damage your house severely will also likely render the basement an ineffective shelter.
Underground bunkers can be easily hidden, accessible only through a small hatch. They use minimal materials and are cheaper to build. However, the biggest issue with building an underground bunker is flooding. In the case of a hurricane, you could very quickly find your underground bunker taking on water. This is obviously not great.
But there are other issues when building an underground bunker. You can’t just pull out a shovel and start digging unless you know for sure there is no plumbing, electrical, piping, or gas lines buried in your yard. You would need to hire somebody to analyze your property. You also need to determine the chances of flooding and work around it.
We’ll be frank here – an above ground shelter is probably easier (and cheaper) for a lot of people to build. And it’s definitely better than nothing. The same applies to a basement shelter – probably the easiest option, and definitely better than nothing. An underground shelter either takes a lot of knowledge about safe construction, or you’ll need to hire someone, so it will take more resources. The good thing about an underground storm shelter is that it’s pretty much guaranteed to keep you and your family safe, and also it can pretty much double as a perfect survival bunker – all you need to do is camouflage the bunker door and you can ride out any SHTF situation for weeks or months if needed, whether its martial law, civil war, global pandemic, or anything else.
“Prefab” Storm Shelters
A simple solution is to use a prefabricated shelter. This isn’t exactly DIY, and it definitely costs a whole heap of cash, but it is the safest way to get a storm shelter on your property. There are tons of companies that will come to your property, dig a hole, install an underground storm shelter impervious to flooding in the ground, and call it a day.
You can also get specialized storm sheds built from solid steel that can withstand even the most brutal hurricanes. These are storm shelters that you would have an extremely difficult time doing on your own, unless you know how to work with steel and concrete, and how to properly incorporate ventilation and other critical aspects.
How to Build A Storm Shelter
Basement Storm Shelter: A DIY Method
If you’re on a budget, or you’re committed to DIYing it for other reasons, the safest and easiest way to build your own storm shelter is to do it in your basement. Think of it like installing a panic room in your basement so that even if your whole house is torn apart and flooded, you will still be safe inside your storm shelter. Because most storms don’t last that long, you don’t necessarily need to worry too much about food, water, or oxygen. Building a storm shelter 7 ft x7 ft will have enough oxygen in it. to last a few hours. Bigger and you’ll have more breathing room (literally). Smaller and you’ll have less. Ideally, it’d make sense to fill it with some chairs and a radio.
We won’t get into the exact dimensions of building your storm shelter, as everyone will be a little different. But let’s go over the basics. First, find a place in your basement that has plenty of room for a shelter. Now it’s time to build.
You can very easily construct the walls using 2×6 (lumber) just like you would when building a shed outside. The only difference here is we will be using screws to attach the foundation of the shelter to your concrete basement floor, and building at least one wall against the concrete wall of your basement. It’s best if you build the shelter in the corner, using two concrete walls for support. Basically, we’re going to “borrow” the stability of the structure of your basement and bolt the shelter on to that.
You are going to anchor the floor of your survival enclosure to the concrete floor of your basement using anchor bolts and a hammer drill. You want the floor studs to be firmly anchored to the concrete. Then do the same with whichever side of the wall is against the concrete wall. You’re basically making wall extensions and fixing the studs to the wall using concrete nails. You will also attach the ceiling studs to the basement ceiling using normal screws.
The point of this is so that even if the top of your house is lifted up and thrown into the wind, your storm shelter won’t be going anywhere. The floor is fixed to the concrete slab and the walls are fixed to the concrete walls of your basement. You have way more protection. Plus, rather than drywall, we are going to be drilling 14-gauge steel sheets to three of the walls. It doesn’t get any sturdier than this.
As we just said, once you have your framework done, secure three sides with 14-gauge steel sheets. Then cover the steel sheets with plywood. Once you’ve completed all these steps, all you need is a door. We recommend installing a door that can withstand tornadoes and heavy winds. No flimsy, hollow doors that can be ripped apart in serious winds. You want a heavy steel door to be installed, or at least a very sturdy wooden one.
Follow the proper steps to install your door securely (no shoddy construction – your shelter is only as good as its weakest point), then seal either side with steel sheets and layers of plywood just like the rest of your box. And that’s all there is to it. You now have a basically indestructible shelter inside your basement. Even if your entire house collapses in on itself, you and your family will be safe inside your storm shelter.
To build an above-ground shelter detached from your property, you are going to do the exact same thing you just did in your basement, only you will need to pour your own concrete slab. You will also need to build a strong ceiling with extra A-frames and support beams to keep your roof from caving in.
How to Build Your Own Underground Storm Shelter
Building your own underground storm shelter can be done in several different ways. Let’s assume there are no underground issues in the place you’d like to be digging, meaning there is no plumbing and no gas lines (make sure you check this. messing up your plumbing will cause you a huge headache, and damaging gas lines is downright dangerous for obvious reasons). The first step is to excavate a hole.
A storm shelter does not need to be huge. It really only needs to be big enough to hold yourself and your family. You will obviously need a fairly big hole, at least eight feet deep and probably 9’ x 9’ before any pouring gets done. However, if you are looking to make a more serious survival bunker, you may want to build yours even larger. Obviously, the longer you’d like to be able to stay down there without spending any time outside, the bigger you’ll want your bunker to be.
The first step is of course to pour your concrete foundation. This is an incredibly complex procedure, and you really need to know what you’re doing before you risk your own life building a shelter that probably won’t be any good anyways. We really highly recommend you find a pro to do this – unless you have building/construction experience and you really know what you’re doing.
Again, we don’t think this is generally a sensible DIY project for the average person, so proceed at your own risk.
If you want to do it on the cheap by yourself, go ahead and level the bottom, create your mold, and then create the mold for your walls. You’re going to build this out of concrete, so there is going to be a heck of a lot of pouring. Basically, you’re building a basement, but one that is specifically designed to protect you from the heavy winds you see in tornadoes and storms.
Once you’ve poured the concrete floor and added your four concrete walls, you want to build the interior walls in the same way we described if you were building your DIY storm shelter inside a pre-existing basement. The idea is to create a wooden frame, anchoring it to the concrete, installing sheets of steel with double sheets of plywood. This is going to seriously help against flooding. Don’t forget to take all your measurements prior to pouring or you’ll lose a whole lot of space to the concrete.
Because we’re doing this cheaply, you’re not going to have ventilation or plumbing. You’re going to need to build yourself a sturdy roof the same as you would with an above-ground shelter. Then from above, you’ll finish by burying the ceiling in dirt and grass so it’s invisible, leaving only the small opening going down into the storm shelter. Cover it with a small shed or something if you want to further camouflage your shelter/bunker.
Yes, you will need to install a ladder and a hatch. If SHTF, you can quickly shovel dirt and grass over the hatch and your bunker will be completely hidden to the vast majority of the population.
DIY Storm Shelters: Final Thoughts
There are countless alternatives to the methods we just provided. You can try building your shelter into the side of a hill for extra support, or you can use dirt to create your own “hill” (more like a mound) covering your above-ground shelter. You can bury a shipping container and transform it into a bunker. There are tons of different methods for building a DIY shelter. You can even dig through the floor of your garage and make a “hidden” shelter inside your house that is beneath the ground.
A final, repeated warning: this stuff require a whole lot of construction and DIY expertise. This isn’t a project for the inexperienced (or the faint hearted). This isn’t like building a shed in your garden that only requires a bunch of 2x4s, an above-ground framework using cinderblocks, and a standard peaked roof. You really need to know your stuff for installing steel sheets, double plying your walls, pouring concrete, anchoring to concrete, etc. If you approach this without a high level of knowledge about safe construction, at best you’ll damage your property and make your own life difficult. At worst, you’ll compromise the safety of family and put them all in danger.
As an additional tip – don’t forget that if you’re dealing with hurricane season and have an underground shelter, have a sump pump ready to pump water out of your shelter if necessary. Also, keep a handful of supplies in your shelter just in case. A first aid kit, a small stash of food and water, and a radio are always ideal. You never know when something could block the exit and leave you trapped in your shelter, requiring you to problem solve your way out or to wait for help. That’s why basic supplies are a good idea.