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How homeowners can prepare for a tornado

(NewsNation) — Dozens of tornadoes have swept the Midwest and South in one of the most active springs on record. Aerial photos show the path of the destructive storms, zigzagging across neighborhoods, forests and highways.

While the most severe storms destroy all in their path, some homes withstand winds better than others. That leads some homeowners to ask: How can I make my own home safer? And can I afford it? 

“You can build a home that can withstand an F5 tornado, most people can’t afford it,” said Troy Bolander, director of planning, development & neighborhood services in Joplin, Missouri, which was hit by one of the worst tornadoes on record in 2011.

Here’s a look at three solutions engineering and government officials say everyday people can do to minimize the damage during wind storms. 

Fighting uplift: Retrofit your roof

Even if you’re not building from scratch, there are changes you can make to the structure of your house to minimize the likelihood of damage. 

“What fails is there’s an uplift on the roof, and the walls fail because it’s all connected by the roof,” said Bolander. “The whole system fails, and the home is destroyed.” 

Yet for just a few thousand dollars, adding hurricane clips to a roof can minimize the likelihood of liftoff. These metal fasteners work by reinforcing where the roof connects to the wall, and could be a good idea to install if you are replacing your roof, Bolander said. 

Historic homes’ roofs in particular were built according to outdated building codes, meaning additional repairs and retrofitting may be required.  

“Maybe you (need) to put in one bigger size roof beam, maybe you put in the next thicker size roof deck,” said Marc Levitan, a senior engineer with the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program. “If your house is stronger … it may not be perfect, but it has a chance to perform better in a stronger tornado.”

Tornado-proof: Build a safe room

Making your house stronger against wind won’t prevent destruction from the strongest tornadoes — in part because it’s just too expensive. 

“We don’t design New York City for a category five hurricane. … we designed (building codes) for the common tornado now, which is 97% of all tornadoes,” Levitan said. “If you want to design for life safety at the very high end, then you put in a storm shelter.”

Shelters like those can range in price from a few thousand dollars to over $10,000, but many state and local communities have grant programs to help homeowners afford it, especially in the Midwest and Southern states where tornadoes are more common. 

“There are a whole universe of options,” Levitan said, including prefabricated units that you bolt within a basement or garage. Other people choose to bury a shelter in their backyard, where it’s not noticeable until it’s needed. 

Some states and communities have grant programs that help homeowners cover the cost. That money may come from FEMA or state-run programs.

Prepare for the worst: Get your documents in order

Even when paying careful attention to safety, it’s still hard to predict where, when and how severe a tornado will hit. 

That’s why Jane Cage, who teaches about disaster planning and recovery with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says homeowners need to prepare for the worst. 

“Pre-disaster planning is almost like buying insurance. You know, no one wants to talk about it,” she said.

But while perhaps odious, it doesn’t have to be complicated. She recommended if you have a storm shelter or basement, those may be the best place to store those documents. 

“When the worst thing happens: ‘Where are all my title documents? Where’s every (document) related to my house? Is it in a cloud, or is it only in the drawer behind me?’” Cage said.

Cage also suggested keeping a past utility bill or other proof of address so if your house is gone, you’re still able to access government benefits.

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