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Best available refuge: Protecting yourself when a tornado or hurricane hits

[fa icon="calendar"] Sep 16, 2021 11:30:00 AM / by Greg Hoyt, PE

Tornados and hurricanes are dangerous, extreme wind events. Both types of storms are likely to happen in specific geographies—tornados in the central plains of the U.S. and hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard and Gulf Coast. Yet these storms can and do happen in other areas.

Tornados are typically not on the ground for long, but winds up to 318 mph in the most powerful events can cause significant damage in that time. Hurricanes present a different challenge—they also bring extreme winds up to 157 mph and can hover over the same land area for 12 to 24 hours.

Even for those who live and work outside areas that typically experience tornados or hurricanes, it is a good idea to know where to go to be safe inside your building in the case of an extreme wind event. This is called the best available refuge and FEMA has created documentation to help identify the safest areas within a structure. 


Where is the safest room?

According to FEMA, “the term best available refuge area refers to areas in an existing building that have been deemed by a qualified architect or engineer to likely offer the greatest safety for building occupants during a tornado.” There may still be a danger of being injured, but these are considered the safest possible areas, and people are less likely to suffer injuries or to be killed than in other areas of the structure.

While most buildings will sustain catastrophic damage when hit by an F4 (wind speed 207-260 mph) or F5 (261-318 mph) storm, the reality is that most tornadoes do not produce the winds seen in those types of storms. By using the best available refuge area in an existing building, you can greatly reduce the risk of injury in a typical storm.


Selecting the best available refuge area

FEMA recommends three steps to select the best available refuge areas:

Determine how much refuge area space is required to house building occupants.

  • Review construction drawings and inspect the building to identify the strongest portion(s) of the building.
  • Assess the site to identify any potential tree, pole, or tower fall-down or windborne missiles.

A professional structural engineer or architect can work with you to help determine the safest area of your building. Typically, these rooms are in the interior with no exterior walls or windows, a location below ground or at ground level, with a minimal amount of glass (windows or doors). Ideally, the room is built with reinforced concrete or reinforced masonry walls, with strong connections between walls and roof and walls and foundation.

Even if you do not live in an area often hit by violent wind events like tornados or hurricanes, it is important to be prepared. We have decades of experience helping clients prepare for disasters and recover after a storm has passed. Contact us today and we can help you find the best available refuge in your building.

 Download The Best Available Refuge Area Checklist


Topics: Engineering, Catastrophe Response, Forensics, Storm Damage, Hurricane Damage, Water Damage

Greg Hoyt, PE

Written by Greg Hoyt, PE