BY ALEXANDRA MORRIS
From our July/August 2016 issue of Western Horse Review files.
On average, over 1,000 tornadoes occur in the United States every year, especially in severe weather and supercell-prone areas such as Tornado Alley. Yet, according to ongoing research by Environment Canada, Canada experiences an average of 62 tornadoes a year as well.
Upon hearing a tornado warning, the natural response is to gather the kids and pets and hurry down to a safe room in the basement. But what happens to the animals we can’t take to safety below? When time is of the essence and a natural disaster is wreaking havoc in the area, the only logical option may be to let livestock go – and pray they will find refuge on their own.
With today’s technology it’s easier to predict when storms are going to come, unlike 10 years ago. Now we can predict, within minutes, when a tornado is going to hit. That means we also have time to prepare for the worst, gather everything we can and head to the safe room. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a safe room is a hardened structure specically designed to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criteria and provide near-absolute protection in extreme weather events, including tornadoes and hurricanes. Near-absolute protection means that, based on our current knowledge of tornadoes and hurricanes, the occupants of a safe room built in accordance with FEMA guidance will have a very high probability of being protected from injury or death.
There aren’t many out there, but Mary Ellen Hickman – who lives in the infamous Oklahoma “tornado alley” – built a safe room for her horses. She constructed it in 2014, after a devastating tornado just missed their place.
“I love Oklahoma, but I could not live here without this. I actually can rest now that I know my animals are safe!” says Hickman. The safe room can hold 10 horses comfortably and there is room for more in the aisle way, in the event two horses don’t get along.
“It’s designed like a slant-load horse trailer and will hold 10 horses plus dogs, cats, and people!” she says.
Each stall is equipped with hay nets, which remain filled throughout the tornado season. The room is intended to house horses for a few hours, overnight if need be, but not for several days. There are no waterlines, though Hickman stocks it with buckets and a nearby water source.
“The safe room has to be 12 feet wide but there is no regulation for length, so I made it 35 feet long,” says Hickman.
The cost to build was about $300 USD per linear foot for the building, and a 4×6’ storm door (with three dead bolts) which is eight feet high, plus walls that are eight inches thick. However, there are additional costs for all the other fixtures that could be added. The room’s complete concrete structure is a lot thicker than a normal regulation safety room and it took about a month to finish the whole safe room. Hickman’s shelter exceeds FEMA specs for an F5 Tornado. The safe room sits about 10 steps away from the barn.
“It sits right next to our main barn for easy access,” says Hickman. The safe room is also equipped with emergency lighting. Hickman explains that a basic 12×12 unit for horses, people and other animals would cost around $14,000 to start. Every year before tornado season hits, Hickman performs some emergency drills to ensure she will be prepared when a problem hits and hopefully, load everyone smoothly into the room. If bad weather arises and a horse is not cooperating Hickman will give them a tranquilizer, to ensure the horse relaxes and won’t injure itself or others.