Dr. Ernst Kiesling – The Father of the Safe House

In 1854 Johann Kiesling who was sixty seven years old decided to leave his home and head for Texas on the Ben Nevis with about 600 other people to make a new home and start a new life. Johann brought with him his wife Hanna, age fifty seven and their three children; Johann Kiesling, age twenty two, Magdalena Kiesling, age eighteen, and Ernst Kiesling, age fifteen. Johann and his wife Hanna did not survive the trip. They died from cholera in Queenstown, Ireland. Johann died October 17, 1854 and Hanna succumbed the next day. All three children survived and raised families. This story is not about them, but about another Kiesling who takes survival very seriously. Dr. Ernst Kiesling is all about survival and is a great grandson of Ernst Kiesling who was fifteen when he arrived in Texas in 1854. Dr. Ernst Kiesling has been called the “Father of the Safe Room.” I became aware of Dr. Ernst Kiesling while searching for patents by the Ben Nevis Kiesling family. Dr. Ernst Kiesling was very courteous and responsive to me when I emailed him and asked if he was related to the Ben Nevis Kieslings. He responded to my emails, answering my questions and helping me put this together.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling studied mechanical engineering and received his Bachelor’s Degree in 1955 from Texas Technological College. He received his Master’s Degree in Applied Mechanics in 1959 at Michigan State University and then received his Doctorate in Applied Mechanics in 1966 at Michigan State University. Dr. Kiesling went on to teach and do research at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.

In 1970 a strong tornado struck Lubbock, Texas and Dr. Kiesling and other faculty members of Texas Tech studied the damage from the tornado to learn more about tornado wind speeds, wind-induced damage, and to determine ways to counteract the winds. On March 10 1973, Burnet, Texas suffered severe damage from a tornado. There were no deaths in Burnet associated with the tornado, but thirty people were injured in the town of 3,500 and 300 homes and businesses were destroyed, along with a school. Dr. Kiesling and his team went to Burnet to survey the damage. They came across a small pantry near the center of a house with all four walls intact. The house had no roof and several walls were destroyed, but the walls of the pantry survived. This is when the idea of an above-ground storm shelter was born.

On April 3, 1974 an F5 tornado struck Xenia, Ohio. It killed thirty three people and injured over 1,300. The tornado damaged or destroyed 1,200 houses, many businesses, ten churches and several schools. There were 148 tornados that struck several states over two days with Xenia, Ohio suffering the worst damage. Dr. Kiesling’s team went to Xenia, Ohio and there, amidst the rubble, they found an interior bathroom intact. The above-ground shelter idea continued to evolve. Dr. Ernst Kiesling, and graduate student David Goolsby, presented the concept in Civil Engineering magazine in 1974.

Dr. Kiesling and his team at Texas Tech University determined that tornadic wind speeds were not nearly as strong as previously thought. At one point, it was thought that tornados had wind speeds in excess of 600 miles per hour. The team worked on a shelter design that could withstand wind speeds of 250 miles per hour, higher than the ground-level wind speeds observed in any of the teams’ post storm inspections.

In the 1975, Dr. Kiesling built a storm shelter in his own house and opened it for public inspection. He and his colleagues continued to research wind and storm related damage, trying to find shelter designs that were inexpensive and yet saved lives. Dr. James R. McDonald developed a missile impact facility that could launch large ‘missiles’ at high speed. This was used to test the shelter designs for debris impact resistance. The team at Texas Tech University made their designs public for anyone to use.

Jarrell, Texas, a town of 410 people, was struck by an F5 tornado on May 27, 1997. Twenty seven people were killed and the Double Creek Estates subdivision was destroyed, a total of thirty eight homes. The storms received a lot of media coverage which included information about above-ground shelters. Within a week, Texas Tech University’s Wind Engineering Research Center of which Dr. Ernst Kiesling was a part of, received over 1,000 requests for shelter plans.

In October 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published a booklet entitled Taking Shelter from the Storm – Building a Safe Room Inside your House or Small Business that included the team’s residential designs. This booklet became known as FEMA 320 and was revised in 1999, 2008 and 2014 to which Dr. Kiesling contributed. Over one million copies have been distributed and many more have been downloaded from the web.

On May 3, 1999, Oklahoma City was struck by an F5 tornado. A storm shelter survived the storm and received as much publicity as the storm damage. Many companies were building storm shelters at that point, but they were not all high quality shelters. A storm shelter standard did not exist. Within a year after the Oklahoma City tornado over twenty companies had their storm shelters tested at Texas Tech University for debris impact resistance. Dr. Kiesling invited companies to Texas Tech University to address the issue of quality in the storm shelter industry. The National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) was born in order to promote quality in storm shelter designs and develop industry standards for above ground shelters. In 2001, Dr. Kiesling was appointed as Executive Director of the NSSA, a position which he still holds today.

In May 2002, the NSSA agreed to develop a national standard for storm shelters with the Southern Building Code Congress International, Incorporated into the International Code Council. At the 2008 Structures Conference, held in Austin, Texas April 30

through May 2, Dr. Ernst Kiesling and Mark L. Levitan presented “Design and Construction of Storm Shelters – Introducing the new International Code Council (ICC)/National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) Standard” at a pre- congress seminar. It was later accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and became known as ICC 500. The ICC 500 was updated in 2008 and again in 2014 and the current edition is known as ICC 500-2014.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling is also a partner in the Federal Alliance for Safe Houses (FLASH). He is featured in the FLASH “Partners in Prevention”, March 2017 issue (Volume 19, Issue 3). Dr. Kiesling continues to work with FLASH, FEMA, the ICC and the NSSA.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling, a great grandson of Ernst Kiesling who survived the cholera outbreak on the Ben Nevis in 1854, has helped many people survive with his past and present work with regard to above-ground storm shelters. We thank him for his 50 years of work and are proud of all he has done for others.


1. Chicago Tribune, “Tornados Rip 8 Texas towns – 4 killed”, March 11, 1973, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1973/03/11/page/1/article/tornados-rip-8-texas-towns-4-killed.

2. Meteorologist Ted Fujita devised the Fujita Scale as a way to measure maximum winds within a storm based on the damage caused. The scale goes from 0 to 5 with 5 being the most severe. An F5 tornado estimates wind speeds to be between 260 miles per hour (mph) and 320 mph.

3. Dayton Daily News Archive, “Xenia Tornado of 1974”, https://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/ddn_archive/2011/04/19/xenia-tornado-of-1974/, April 19, 2011.

4. Wikipedia, “1997 Central Texas Tornado Outbreak”.

5. National Storm Shelter Association, “History of the National Storm Shelter Association – Major Milestones”, August 2015.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *