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DIY: How to Make In-the-House Storm Shelter – Pantry / Root Cellar

Storage pantry is a storm shelter

Storage pantry is a storm shelter

Secret room / hidden room can save your life

What seems like a regular pantry off of your kitchen can actually serve as a hidden in-the-house storm shelter. This sure beats running outside to a dark root cellar in the middle of a storm!

I am talking about severe storms, like tornadoes, hurricanes, or other severe storms and natural disasters.

If you want to keep the entire house safe, you’ll need to see my page on DIY: How to Build a Tornado Resistant or Hurricane Proof House.

This secret chamber will keep you safely tucked away in the center of the house (ideally the place to locate it) with stores of food and water and emergency survival kits and blankets, if you stock it in this way.

Tornadoes are some of the worst storms on the planet because of their high wind velocities, and their twisted nature. Circulating winds are fare more powerful and devastating than regular winds, and they cause far more damage.


Tornadoes are also an issue in many areas.  People who are in mobile homes or who don’t have storm cellars or other shelter are at the most risk, however, even custom homes have been completely shattered by tornadoes which blaze their way through city neighborhoods and country farms.

Tornadoes that occur in the U.S. are ranked from F-0 to F-5 on the ENHANCED FUJITA scale (replacing the older Fujita Scale on February 2007, by the National Weather Service), depending on its estimated wind speed and degree of damage.

Differences between the old Fujita Scale and the new Enhanced Fujita Scale:

F Number Fastest 1/4-mile (mph) 3 Second Gust (mph) EF Number 3 Second Gust (mph) EF Number 3 Second Gust (mph)
0 40-72 45-78 0 65-85 0 65-85
1 73-112 79-117 1 86-109 1 86-110
2 113-157 118-161 2 110-137 2 111-135
3 158-207 162-209 3 138-167 3 136-165
4 208-260 210-261 4 168-199 4 166-200
5 261-318 262-317 5 200-234 5 Over 200


tornados map

Image source: (based on Fujita Scale)

The In-The-House Emergency Storm Shelter that doubles as a food pantry

If you add earth tubes (what are earth tubes?), this pantry serves more like a root cellar that has fresh cooled air (no electricity needed) and can keep food cold when it is not being used as an emergency storm shelter.

Mr. Dave Carter is/was a teacher at the community college in Lincoln, NE years ago when we lived there (and built our own passive solar straw bale house).  He taught his students solar house projects information (I was one of his students and have now gone on to teach others what I have learned) how to build houses for under $20,000, Hand-made Solar classes, and other topics of interest.

One of the things he spoke of was the “in-the-house” storm shelter.

Striped Pattern

Surviving is the first rule of living

Surviving is the first rule of living

The in-the-house storm shelter is where one goes in place of an outside storm cellar.  Many people no longer have storm cellars available to them, so this is a viable alternative to that where one can run and hide when tornadoes or other severe storms threaten (Who wants to run outside – where the tornado is! – and HOPE they make it to the storm shelter in time anyway?).

The idea is to build a “pantry” into your house that is separate but also part of the house.  When not being used as a storm shelter it is used daily as your ordinary food pantry.  Even if the house fell down around you during a storm, you would be safe inside the “pantry” where all the food is at (and where else would you rather be while people are spending days digging you out from under the debris!).

TIP: Keeping other emergency items, water, can opener, blanket, flashlights, first aid kit, medicines, etc. inside the pantry/storm shelter is recommended.

Basically, the pantry is big enough to hold several people for several days, if need be.

Pantry Storm Shelter Features

* typical dimensions would be 8’x10’ or whatever size you want

* a special L-shaped foundation under the pantry

* completely enclosed as a kind of “box”

* roofed and studded UNDER and separate from the rest of the house

* reinforced a certain way to hold the roof down (instead of up)

* ventilation

IMPORTANT:  Special vents or earthtubes or external ventilation of some kind MUST be present to bring in fresh air (it also helps equalize the pressure during a severe tornado). Earth tubes also are a form of natural cooling for a house so they can serve as a replacement for an air conditioner–all without using any electricity at all–a completely passive system. To learn how to make earthtubes please see the “cheap air conditioning” page.


Gable roof

Gable roof

Protecting the house with the right roof shape

Hip roofs are slanted so that the winds ease over them rather than buffet into them (as with the vertical ends of gable roofs), but it is important to realize that the strongest house is always a dome-shaped house.  Their egg-shaped design allows winds to go over/around them with ease, like in the cereal box and coffee can experiment.

Domes have other advantages… they are 30% more energy efficient to heat/cool and can give you 30% more square footage for the same amount of money it would cost to build a square house.  Because of this you will also save 30% on materials, plus another possible 30% on labor costs (or work if you do it yourself) by building a dome home.

Hip, hipped, or hip-roof

Hip, hipped, or hip-roof

The best design would indeed be a dome structure that is monolithic and strongly built above the minimum codes or building requirements to resist high winds and storms of all types.  Monolithic domes tend to be stronger and more efficient than geodesic type domes because they are one single piece with no crevices/joints that could loosen or leak air.

Avoid flooding issues

One last thing that needs to be mentioned is the aspect of flooding.  Many tornadoes and hurricanes are accompanied by hail and/or high amounts of rain.  Tides rise higher than normal in hurricanes and bring with them flooding throughout the area they hit, especially at ocean/land boundaries.

Place your home on piers if you are in a flood zone. Use really tall piers for hurricane flood zones near the coast; for instance, many homes in these areas are built on full one-story high stilts, which elevate the home up and out of the way of high water levels.

A round house on stilts will receive far less wind damage than a square/rectangle shaped one, just as a dome will shed wind, and a hip roof will sustain far less damage since a gable roof will more likely be ripped apart.  An in-the-house storm shelter built on the second floor, or in such a stilt home (using these storm-resistant techniques) will keep the pantry from flooding as well.

If water levels are expected to rise it is also recommended that air vents be brought in from above rather than from below (as in earth tubes–see this Q&A to find out more) to ensure that they do not fill with water and block off the air supply.

Now that you are equipped with the tools and information you need to protect your home from severe storms it is crucial that you pay attention to what kind of area you are in, whether tornadoes and/or hurricanes are what you are wanting to protect your home from, and whether or not you are in a flood plain.

Take into account the local codes in your area, what can and cannot be done (by you or a hired contractor), and most of all be safe!  The peace of mind that you will have by making one of these storm shelters, or making a special safe room inside your house storm-resistant is worth every penny and every minute of time invested!


how to solar energy projects

To learn more please see this book: Passive Solar Energy House Projects

To see the Passive Solar Energy House Projects: A How-To Guide book with full descriptions and plans to make a storm-resistant home, the in-the-house-storm-storm shelter design, plus 5 other subjects on solar panels vs wind power, passive solar home design, how to make a solar oven, how to build a solar water distiller, and how to make natural cooling (air conditioning) earth tubes click here.

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