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Severe Weather

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This is a guest post by the Law Librarian of Congress, David S. Mao, who has previously written about state government contracts, Justifying Speed, and Food for Thought, among other topics.

I recently visited St. Paul, Minnesota, and on the return trip to Washington, D.C., noticed the sign pictured below at the airport identifying a Severe Weather Shelter.  What does “severe weather” mean, I wondered (the graphic on the sign suggests tornadoes), and more importantly, what defines “shelter” to withstand a tornado?

Severe weather shelter sign
This sign designates an area as a severe weather shelter.

The Minnesota State Legislature provides free, online access to the state’s statutes, laws, and rules. Searching through the online Minnesota Statutes and Minnesota Rules, I did not find an explicit definition for severe weather (i.e., “severe weather means . . .”); however, several other references provided some guidance. Specifically, Chapter 327 of the statutes (related to Hotels, Motels, Resorts, and Manufactured Homes) includes the phrase, “severe weather conditions, such as tornadoes, high winds, and floods” in its text (Minn. Stat. §§ 327.20 and 327.23).

Like many other states Minnesota coordinates emergency management within the state through an executive agency. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety “is a large and complex agency dedicated to prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, enforcement and education.” Among its fifteen divisions is the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division that has as its mission “to help Minnesota prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural and human-caused disasters.” On the division’s website, I noticed an entire section on Weather Safety.  The section specifically provides information on “severe weather” including: extreme winds; floods and flash floods; heat waves; severe storms, hail, lightning; tornadoes; and wildfires.

So it appears that tornadoes should qualify as severe weather in Minnesota, where twisters are, apparently, common.  Citing the National Weather Service, the website notes that “Minnesota experiences an average of forty tornadoes per year.” Moreover, records for the last several years include thirty-seven twisters in 2012 and a state record in 2010 with 104 tornadoes across the state.

For those interested in learning more about emergency management in Minnesota, details on the division’s organization and duties can be found in the Minnesota Emergency Management Act of 1996 (Minn. Stat. § 12.01 et seq.). The division also provides an excellent history and overview in its publication, Minnesota Emergency Management Director’s Handbook.

To find information on what might be considered a tornado shelter in Minnesota, I again turned to the Minnesota Statutes and Minnesota Rules for guidance.  In the statutes, I found definitions for “tax shelters” and “emergency shelters for victims of domestic abuse” but no specific definition for tornado shelters. In the Minnesota Rules, however, I found a chapter on “manufactured home park storm shelter design” that was helpful (Minn. R. 1370 et seq.—its purpose “is to provide minimum standards of design and construction of buildings to provide protection for manufactured home park residents from tornadoes and extreme winds”).  In addition to providing some specific guidelines, these rules incorporate by reference Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms, published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency which includes detailed design and performance criteria for tornado safe rooms.

The Law Library of Congress has an excellent and comprehensive collection of current and historical legal materials for Minnesota, as well as all other states and the District of Columbia. Legal reference librarians are ready to assist you with your questions—in person or via the Ask A Librarian service.


  1. I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto…
    Thanks for Info.!

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