How to Survive the Next Tornado -- on a Budget

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This photo provided by Shelby Barrow shows a tornado near Chickasha, Okla., Tuesday, May 24, 2011. A line of violent thunderstorms roared across middle America on Tuesday, killing six people in two states, with several tornadoes touching down in Oklahoma and high winds pounding rural Kansas. (AP Photo/Shelby Barrow) MANDATORY CREDIT
Still reeling from the EF5 tornado that struck Moore, Okla., on May 20, the residents of Oklahoma City awoke today to survey the damage from a second round of violent storms that left five people dead and injured dozens more.

Add that to the trail of devastation left by the May 20 super-tornado, which packed winds upwards of 200 miles an hour as it tore through Moore. The twister cut a 17-mile path of destruction, destroyed or damaged upward of 12,000 homes, and leveled two elementary schools. At least two dozen people were killed, including 10 children.

Perhaps the most startling statistic about the Moore tornado, though, is this: Neither of the elementary schools in question, nor many of the homes destroyed, had basements, nor any reinforced above-ground shelters to protect the people inside -- this despite the fact that the recent storm followed almost in the path of a 1999 tornado that struck the town.

Why Not?

It's actually not surprising that safe rooms were hardly to be found in Moore: According to the Associated Press, not a single state in the Union currently mandates the building of safe rooms in residential construction.

But why don't people build these things voluntarily? Well, look at it from the perspective that most affects you, the homeowner. According to the National Weather Service, tornadoes inflicted 45 fatalities in the U.S. in 2010. According to the CDC, 2,468,435 Americans died that year. That works out to about a 1-in-55,000 chance of dying in a tornado. In contrast, the National Safety Council says the odds of dying by slipping and breaking your neck in your bathtub are five times greater: 1 in 11,000.

Worth noting though: As with everything else in real estate, it's "location, location, location." According to the site, Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory calculated that "someone living in Norman, Oklahoma, in the heart of tornado alley, has a 1 in 7,000 chance of being fatally injured as a result of a tornado."

Of course, the cost of buying some sticky pads for your tub to cut the risk of a slip is a whole lot less than anything you could do to reduce your risk of dying due to a twister.

The High Cost of Safety

According to Beazer Homes (BZH), the average cost of outfitting a medium-size house with a full unfinished basement can easily exceed $30,000. On a $270,000 house, that's more than 10 percent of the construction cost. (A partial basement doesn't cost much less, reducing total construction cost by just $3,000.)

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Not to mention hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a sump pump to guard against flooding and a backup battery or permanent generator to run it in the event of a power outage.

In short, when most people weigh the costs and benefits of putting in a basement in areas where they aren't standard, versus the 1-in-55,000 likelihood that they'll ever actually need it for survival, the costs win the argument ... and no basement gets built.

A Lower-Budget Safety Option

There is a cheaper solution.

Responding to the unmet need for affordable tornado safety, some construction companies offer a product called a "safe room," or sometimes, a "safe storm shelter." Don't confuse these with Jodie Foster's luxurious, high-tech hideout from "Panic Room." A safe room is simply a reinforced-concrete or all-steel shelter that can be installed inside a house's garage and bolted to the concrete pad.

These safe rooms don't cost much more than a decent used car -- under $5,000 for a larger model capable of protecting a family of five. They're quite spartan. But for a family on a budget, they offer an affordable option for staying safe from the storm.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith actually does have a basement ... and a sump pump ... and a backup battery system. And he fully intends to get around to replacing those batteries someday.

Your Insurance Doesn't Cover That: Hidden Dangers in the Fine Print
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How to Survive the Next Tornado -- on a Budget

When buying homeowners insurance, be sure that you're buying enough coverage to rebuild your home, if necessary. Don't look at market prices for homes, but rather at the replacement cost for your home, which would include removing what's left of your home, buying new building materials, and labor. "Guaranteed replacement" policies should cover the whole cost, while "replacement cost" coverage often covers less than the full amount. Check your policy to see what kind you have, and be sure that your home's value isn't being understated.

Also, know that in standard homeowners policies, many kinds of damage are typically excluded, such as that from earthquakes, floods, nuclear attacks. These days, mold damage is often excluded, too. If you're worried about any excluded risks, talk to your insurer. You can probably expand your coverage, for a price. You may also get it elsewhere, such as from the FEMA-administered National Flood Insurance Program, or the California Earthquake Authority.

You may know that dental or vision-related expenses are not covered by your health care insurance, but that's probably not all. Pre-existing conditions have long been excluded by many insurers, though President Obama's health care reform act is addressing that. A nose job or other cosmetic surgery, for example, is most likely excluded, too, no matter how much of an emergency you think your double chin is.

Your policy may also not cover ambulance services, maternity care, prosthetics, kidney dialysis, organ transplants, diabetes management, emergency-room visits, mental-health care, and care you receive outside the United States -- or any of a number of other expenses. Don't be overly alarmed -- policies vary widely, and you may be covered for many of the above costs, at least to some degree. Just be sure to find out what is and isn't covered, and when shopping for a policy, seek out the one that fits your needs and pocketbook best.

The main reason to get renters insurance is because many possible losses renters face are excluded from their landlords' insurance policies. If a roof leak destroys much of your collection of first-edition books, your landlord's insurance will likely fix the roof and any damage to your apartment's floor, but your book loss will probably be excluded. Thus, it's smart to get renters insurance, which is often rather inexpensive, as well.

When shopping for such policies, be sure you know whether losses will be insured for their replacement cost or their current, depreciated value. (The former is, of course, preferable.) Renters policies can include or exclude coverage if a guest is injured on your premises. If you'd like that coverage, ask for it. Know that in many renters policies, damage due to natural disasters or structural damage to the building may not be covered, too. If you're worried about those issues, including burst pipes, ask about it. You may need to add a rider to your policy.

There are coverage holes with car insurance, too. At a basic level, while most drivers carry liability coverage, many don't carry collision coverage, which will address damage to your car. Omitting it can make sense if you're driving a clunker that you'd just replace after an accident, but crunch some numbers before passing it up.

There are some tricky little car-insurance details, too. For example, a stolen car may not be covered if you left it running with the doors unlocked. Damage due to hitting an animal such as a deer, or damage from a lightning strike, tornado, or flood, may also be excluded or limited. Medical bills may also be off-limits unless you have medical coverage, and valuables stolen out of your car are also often excluded. (They may be covered via your homeowners policy, though.)

A key thing to understand about life insurance is that not everyone needs it. If no one is depending on your income, then sad though your demise will be, you need not protect against anyone's financial loss from it. But many people do have dependents, in the form of children, spouses, and even parents or others. So know that with life insurance, you may not be covered if the death is a suicide, if it happens as part of war-time combat or during the commission of a felony, or if it's due to a private-aircraft accident. (Deaths tied to commercial flights are typically covered.)

Also, if you regularly engage in dangerous activities such as car-racing, hang-gliding, or extreme mountain-climbing, a related death may not be covered -- unless you pay a premium for a rider to your policy. Lying on your insurance paperwork can also lead to a denied claim.

If you're an investor and you've got much of your retirement security resting on an account at a brokerage, you can take comfort that you're probably protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation. It's a bit like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which covers bank accounts, but it may not provide all the protection you expect it to. The SIPC protects the cash and securities such as stocks and bonds that you may have in your brokerage account -- in the event that the brokerage runs into deep trouble or fails, or if a broker steals your assets. It does not cover losses that occur if your stock or bond loses money or a company in which you're invested goes out of business.

Even FDIC protection has limits. It typically covers assets in bank accounts up to $250,000 for each person's accounts at each bank in each account ownership category. So if you have $350,000 in savings accounts at one bank, you may not be fully covered and you might want to divide the sum between two banks.

You're smart to look into insurance for all kinds of needs -- and smarter still to read the big and small print to be sure you understand what is and isn't covered. In many cases, you can add the extra protections you seek. That might come at a cost, but it might be worth it, too.

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