The average basement in a single-family detached home can easily be modified for all sorts of purposes. In the event of a tornado or similar type of weather disaster, basements make acceptable living quarters. After an earthquake, when fires often rage and the food supply chain is cut, a family can easily survive in the basement of their home in comfort and safety.
While not good refuge in the event of a nuclear accident or attack, a standard basement has multiple uses in many kinds of emergencies, from terrorist attacks and food-supply interruptions, to tornadoes and hurricanes. Note that living below ground during floods and some types of hurricanes can be an impossible proposition.
How to make your basement a safe place during disasters
Not every home’s basement is ready for long-term habitation. Some homeowners will need to patch wall cracks, seal door frames and maybe even add a more substantial roof to keep out water, flying debris and pests.
To make a basement ready for a one-month stay (for four people), the first steps are:
Get an inspection
Have a licensed home inspector or contractor look at the basement and identify any problem areas, like old ceilings, improper ventilation, cracked flooring and unsupported interior walls. Anything that needs attention should be taken care of before beginning the transition to “bunker conversion.”
Add bedding, shower, toilet, food-prep area, and furniture.
After the basement is structurally sound, add carpeting, a sleeping area, a toilet/shower area if needed, and plastic lining for the walls and ceiling. The addition of bathroom facilities in the basement might require expert help if you cannot do it yourself, but is a small job and a necessary one.
The key concepts to keep in mind when converting a basement into a disaster room are safety and comfort. Camping supplies are excellent, low-cost items that can serve as a makeshift kitchen. Even a chemical toilet and a camping shower can serve for personal needs if you choose not to install a small restroom in the area.
Use furniture you already own, or buy a few pieces from second-hand stores to equip your new disaster room. Try to leave areas of open space and avoid clutter.
Calculate your needs for food, water and medical supplies.
There is no need to spend excessively, but a good combination of disaster food, sealed jugs or tubs of water, and a very good first aid kit are highly recommended by most disaster experts. Track your family’s consumption of food and water for a month or so to get a good idea of how much, and what, you will need.
Some “survival” foods are sufficient for calories and nutrients but can become very boring in a matter of days. Make certain that you have enough comfort food for everyone, as well as enough drinking water.
Don’t forget important documents, matches, candles, batteries, and a hand-cranked radio and flashlight. Solar-powered items are good as long as you have access to an exposed panel on your roof via wiring.
Other factors to consider:
- Have an adequate supply of MREs (meals ready to eat), a dozen or so small refillable water bottles, a manual can-opener, and a two-month supply of any medications you regularly take.
- In a safe place within the basement, store some cash and small change. A hundred dollars in ones and a hundred dollars in quarters can make a useful emergency stash during a disaster.
- For water consumption, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recommends one gallon per person per day at minimum. A family of four would consume 240 gallons within two months, or 120 gallons per month. Plastic-lined, metal, 10-gallon (or 5-gallon) drums can double as furniture support or a seating ledge around all or a portion of the basement.
- In the event you are forced outside, be sure to have winter clothing on hand, or at least a few small tents and sleeping bags. It is always a wise move to store a couple extra pairs of sturdy work boots or shoes, as well as extra jackets and coats for everyone.
- To maintain at least minimal communication with the outside world, bring multiple sets of phone batteries, a dozen small flashlights, and a laptop computer.
- In a separate, partitioned section of the basement, place a complete set of household tools, a ladder, several pry bars, at least two shovels, a chainsaw, rope, fuel, some signal flares, whistles, a few 6-foot wooden poles, and an air horn. That’s a lot to keep on hand in an area where you are already cramped for space; but the idea is to have a way to clear any debris that might fall around your home, and to use the wooden poles to push downed power lines away from your property.
- Buy a few large foot lockers for storing the tools, saw, and other items that can pose a safety hazard to children or older adults. If you do not have a power generator, get one and store it in the basement. Many disaster victims find themselves at a loss when they head to the basement for safety and later have to locate their generator. If it’s already in the basement, that’s one less thing to worry about.
- But at least five duffel bags and stock each one with portable emergency gear that anyone could carry in the event you are forced out of the basement due to flooding or an official evacuation order. Make sure each bag weighs 15 pounds or less. Make a few very light ones for children based upon what they are able to carry.
- Have a written emergency plan that the whole family knows and understands (except for very young children). The plan should include what to do if someone becomes unconscious, what numbers to call in various situations, how to lock and unlock the entryway, how to administer first aid, where to meet later if the group becomes separated, and how to prepare basic meals.
- Plan for recreation time by stocking up on books, board games, and whatever activities the family likes to do together (ping-pong and horseshoes make ideal “bunker” games that keep everyone entertained and in a positive mood).
- The daily plan should include moderate exercise for all, preferably as a group. These sessions build morale, help maintain basic health, and serve as a routine-building activity so that the passage of time does not become too much of a grind.
Most people who convert their basements to emergency rooms, and later use them for such, find that planning is of paramount importance. Just having the written plan and essential items on hand is good for the family’s collective peace of mind and helps teach children how to deal with life’s less-than-pleasant realities.