Fortress in the home

Haven: Since Sept. 11, many people are wondering how effective their homes would be as refuge from unforeseen disaster. There are ways to make them safer. Residents find refuge in comforts of home

January 06, 2002|By Christine Demkowych | Christine Demkowych,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Robert and Zohara Hieronimus decided to build their home in Baltimore County 10 years ago, they wanted to be sure they would have a place to take care of their family and friends at a moment's notice in the event of a crisis.

Zoh Hieronimus, a proclaimed futurist and host of a syndicated radio talk show - Future Talk - on WOLB-AM, said their decision to build an underground shelter was made after she unsuccessfully lobbied the U.S. Department of Defense more than 20 years ago to create a shelter system for the entire nation.

"Given our proximity to D.C. and our concern that global conflict, unexpected terrorism and explicit war between nations were inevitable, we felt it was prudent to build a shelter in the basement of our house," she said.

"And now that such a threat has become reality, I'm glad we did it."

Descend into the Hieronimus' basement shelter and you find a space that can hold up to 40 people and has enough food and water to last two weeks. An electric generator provides emergency power and the couple keeps all the supplies they might need for camping in this safe room.

Since Sept. 11, more people are wondering how effective their homes would be as havens from unforeseen disaster. Families today, it seems, are concerned about three major issues:

Physical protection - from blasts, debris and bullets;

Protection from biological and chemical agents; and

Protection from an interruption of public utilities - especially electricity and heat.

Not far from Baltimore, the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg has on display a "safe room" that has been designed according to specifications of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For the past couple of years FEMA has maintained an informational Web page on safe rooms that are designed to protect against tornadoes and hurricanes. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of visits to the site from those on the Web has almost doubled.

Having a safe room built into a house can help homeowners protect their family from injury or death caused by the dangerous forces of extreme winds. It's not uncommon for emergency response personnel and people cleaning up after tornadoes to find an interior room of a severely damaged home still intact even though little of the house remains.

The 8-by-8-foot safe room in Emmitsburg was constructed inside an existing building and built with insulating concrete forms. The walls are designed to withstand sustained winds up to 250 miles per hour and to resist penetration by a 15-pound, 2-by-4-foot stud traveling at 100 mph.

To help homeowners, FEMA and the Wind Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University recently published a booklet - "Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room inside Your House" - that provides homeowners with a risk assessment sheet, guidance for selecting a shelter design, detailed construction plans, materials and cost estimates for building an in-home safe room.

Safe rooms can be located in a basement or in homes built on a concrete slab or even in a crawl space. A basement shelter can be an entirely separate structure with its own walls. In new construction, one or more of the basement walls can be reinforced to use as shelter walls if they do not contain windows or other openings. This type of shelter must also have a ceiling that resists penetration from debris above.

Shelters in homes with a crawl space must have a separate foundation. Placing the shelter inside an existing house, however, would require cutting out a portion of the floor and installing new foundation supports. In reality, it may be more practical to build an exterior shelter.

It's important to remember that a safe room need not be a space used only in a storm. The room can function as a walk-in closet, bathroom, storage space or other room until it's needed for shelter.

Another approach to achieving physical protection is to forget a "safe room" and instead consider building a "safe house."

Over the past five years, homes with exterior walls of concrete have increased in popularity, not only because people wanted bomb shelters, but more often as better-insulated, quieter and more energy-efficient homes.

In Maryland, the number of concrete homes increased 38 percent from 1999 to 2000, according to Patrick Reardon, executive director of the Northeast Cement Shipper's Association. Nationally, the number of concrete homes has increased from 3 percent of new homes in 1993 to 12.5 percent in 2000.

There's no question that concrete homes are sturdier than traditional wood-frame ones. Similar to safe rooms, "they can protect you from 200-mile an hour winds, debris from exploding bombs and stray bullets," said Tom Evans of the Maryland Ready Mix Concrete Association. "But more than anything, they provide you with a sense of comfort and security."

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