April shower brings May flowers; except in the central and southern United States, where April showers bring May TORNADOES. When I first moved to Oklahoma, I was welcomed to the “tornado capital of the world” by my neighbors. Needless to say, a welcome like that got me more focused on this potential threat that doesn’t exist in previous places I have lived.
My wife and I agreed when buying our home in Oklahoma that we would either purchase a home with a tornado storm shelter or have one installed shortly after purchase. Thankfully, we found a home we like with an above-ground tornado storm shelter in the garage. However, it still took a couple months before I started to stock and organize my shelter. After spending a considerable amount of time reviewing sources and developing some solutions for my shelter, I created a checklist of 10 must-haves and 20 nice-to-haves for anyone who is looking at their empty tornado shelter and wondering where to start.
Stocking the tornado shelter requires a balance between space and priorities. The mistake many people make is to use their storm shelter as a place to store ALL their emergency supplies. If you have a 20+ person shelter, go ahead and store all your supplies there. For most of us, that is not only not an option, but a potentially life threatening mistake. If the time comes to use the shelter and you discover your whole family can’t fit because you loaded ten 5-gallon buckets of wheat in there, you might be in serious trouble.
We are going to break down the must-haves and the nice-to-haves in your tornado storm shelter, and then work on storage solutions for fitting everything possible:
- Water – At a bare minimum, two 20oz bottles of water per person. The easiest way to take care of this is to pick up a case of water at the grocery store and keep it in the shelter. At the start of the next season, replace with a new case.
- Medications – You should keep three days of any medications currently prescribed. Make sure to store these in tamper resistant bottles to keep them safe from kids.
- First Aid Kit – At a minimum you should keep a basic first aid kit to handle scrapes.
- Printed copies of all your important papers – Including: home deed, car & home insurance information, car titles, birth certificates, social security cards, and any other key documents.
- Clothes – One set of clothes for each person in the family. This includes underwear, shirt, pants, socks, and shoes (closed toe).
- Emergency Radio – This should include both hand crank and solar powering options. I use the iRonsnow Dynamo Solar Hand Crank Self Powered Radio in my shelter.
- 1 meal of non-perishable food – Good options include tuna in a pouch and crackers, Chex mix, granola bars, or MREs. Anything with a long shelf-life that doesn’t need to be heated should work.
- Flashlights – Storm shelters are VERY DARK when the door shuts. Make sure you have at least one flashlight. There are a ton of good options on Amazon for a great price, I use the OxyWild MD50.
- Blankets – Sitting on a concrete floor gets old and uncomfortable very quickly. If you are concerned about bugs getting in your blankets, consider using a blanket bag to store the blankets in when not in use.
- Kids Supplies – These are must-haves if you have little ones.
- Food – If your kids need baby food or formula, make sure you have enough for three days in the shelter.
- Activities – Kids will follow their parents’ lead on panic if they are left to sit with nothing to do in a storm shelter. With that in mind, have cards, games, lights, coloring books, etc., ready and waiting. To make the stay in the shelter better, provide new games with simple rules that the kids can learn, rather than games they are bored with or have outgrown.
- Water – Top of the list again. If the space allows, I strongly suggest you keep one 5 gallon container of water per person in the household. Shelters can get hot, and if the tornado hits your street you will likely lose city water for at least a day. Having a ready supply of water at hand would be one less thing to worry about in that situation.
- First Aid Kit – A larger first aid kit that includes some trauma care items, such as compression gauges and wraps.
- Computer backup – While some people will use a cloud backup system for their computer, another fail-safe for family videos and pictures is an external hard drive. The cost of these has dropped significantly. You could use an external hard drive to create a backup 1-2 times a year, after which you could store it in the tornado shelter for safe keeping.
- Additional Lighting – A flashlight will work, but it might be helpful to have other light sources in the shelter, especially if you have kids with you. There are several good additional options:
- Shop Lights – You can get low cost shop lights with magnetic backs so you don’t need to hold them. Harbor Freight offers them for free with their ads pretty frequently.
- Crank Lights – Great backup in case those flashlights just don’t have the battery power left that you thought they did.
- Glow Sticks – These are a fun option for the kids. I keep a lot of them in my shelter and have explained to the kids that they’ll each get their own if we ever have to go in the shelter. This has reduced their concern about going into the shelter. To get a good deal on glow sticks, I shop sales after holidays and can usually get them for at least 50% off.
- Lanterns – You could go with LED or kerosene. Personally, I have both in the shelter because they are small. Although, I would only use the kerosene lantern if we did not have power after leaving the shelter.
- Propane heater with 1-pound tanks – Small, portable propane heaters with low-oxygen auto shutoff are useful for heating a small area if you have experienced a loss of power in your home.
- Hammer – Used to clear debris from shelter entrance or to bang on the shelter wall if assistance is needed to get out.
- Additional food – I keep my 72-hour kit/BOB in my shelter. The kit contains enough freeze dried foods and snacks to last three days.
- Jet Boil Stove – While there are many emergency preparedness supplies available these days, Jet Boil stoves are simply the best answer on the market right now for heating food with minimum space for storage. I recently used mine for seven days while backpacking in the deep back-country and it was awesome.
- Water Filter – While these used to be quite expensive, now some of the best portable water filters are also very low cost. I probably own at least 5 different filters, but my favorite on the market today is the Sawyer PointOne. It is lightweight, easy to use, and cheap for an emergency filter.
- Baby Wipes – Both for the kids and adults to clean off dirt and dust.
- Multi-tool – There are a ton of options out there, but there is no need to go out and get the $300 model when a $15 one would do the job.
- Batteries – You should check all the devices in your shelter that need batteries and get at least one extra set of batteries for each device.
- Solar charger – There are a variety out there, but a good base model that can charge a cell phone is a great compromise between cost and function. If you have several family members in the home, consider a larger solar panel that can power 2-3 USB devices at once.
- Cash – You should keep some cash in your storm shelter. We recommend at least $100 per person, kept in a mix of small bills under $20.
- Pet Food – Don’t forget about your pets!
- Bug Out Bag/72-Hour Kit – If space is available, your shelter is a great place to store a 72-Hour Kit for any emergency.
- Firearms & Ammo – The ideal place to store these is in a gun safe, but if you don’t have one you could use your tornado shelter (with gun and ammo still in individual locked cases). A word of caution: I would only recommend this for in-house or in-garage shelters, not in-ground shelters in the yard that are an easier target for thieves.
- Padding for seats –Sitting on bare concrete or on a wood bench in your storm shelter can be rough on your body. Save yourself some pain now and put in either a couple extra blankets or seat pads.
Now that you are building a good list of what to put in your tornado shelter, you need to start thinking about how much space is available. The easiest way to do this is to simply get in the shelter with the whole family and talk about the available space. In-ground garage shelters tend to have the least space for storage, but even they should have some available space. Backyard in-ground and safe room style shelters tend to have more storage space because they are often 6-8 feet tall.
Below are some good options to look at:
- Benches: If there is space, a simple bench keeps people off the ground and can provide a larger space for storage underneath it than a couple of chairs sitting side-by-side would.
- Storage rack: If the space is available, a Lowe’s or Home Depot storage rack can be a fast solution. They’re not my first choice because they will never custom fit your space, but they are an option.
- Custom bench and storage: In my above-ground storm shelter, I needed a bench for my kids but quickly realized that a simple bench would waste a huge amount of space above their heads. To create more storage, I used five 2x4s and one ½ x 12 x 72 to build a bench high enough to fit 5-gallon water containers, along with other heavy storage underneath. Then, I built a shelf for additional storage 18 inches from the ceiling, with a 2×4 secured in the front to prevent anything from falling forward. The key to this project was to keep it simple.
- Over-the-door Shoe Organizer: Finally, my favorite storage solution also happens to the cheapest and easiest one I implemented. If you have a metal ceiling or walls in the shelter, you can use rare earth magnets and some over-the-door shoe holders to give you a wall of pockets for small items while taking up almost no space.
Tornadoes tend to be one of the toughest emergency situations to deal with because of the potential of such quick and total destruction. The good news is that they are a local disaster, which means you can expect the Red Cross, local emergency responders, and your insurance company to help you put the pieces back together if a tornado damages your home. Therefore, when planning for a tornado, just remember that you should have enough supplies in your shelter for two days without assistance; not every bucket of food storage you own.