Storm fears boost firms installing shelters

Spurred by the terrifying images of an EF-5 tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., as well as twisters that tore through Cleburne and Granbury, Texas, last spring, many homeowners are beefing up their security with storm shelters.

No one keeps count of shelter installations but Sarah Smith, executive director of the Amarillo, Texas, American Tornado Shelter Association, estimates as many as 200,000 safe rooms have been added in Texas and Oklahoma in the past year.

“Last year was a record year for most of our companies. I think it had a lot to do with Moore, Okla. Some companies that were selling one or two a day, sold 100 a day after Moore,” Smith said.

Three tornadoes touched down in North Texas on April 3 and they sparked more than 100 email inquiries to John Wingfield, who owns Storm Dorms in Dallas, a franchise for Oklahoma-based Ground Zero Storm Shelters.

“It’s high season for a safe room. The phones are ringing off the wall and the email is lighting up,” said Wingfield, who installed 22 shelters in March and expects to sell more than 300 this year.

“What really did it was last year when those children were killed in Oklahoma,” he said. “Any time kids are injured, it gets every mother’s ‘mama grizzly bear’ going to protect their cubs.”

Ninety percent of Wingfield’s customers choose above-ground safe rooms constructed of ¼-inch steel plate that bolts directly to a garage slab. The ventilated steel boxes are rated to withstand an EF-5 tornado, Wingfield said.

His standard unit is a 4-foot-by-6-foot model that costs $5,400 installed. Size is usually determined by space in a garage, he said

“We’re seeing a rise in people adding them to new construction. Some people are putting them in the end of a master bedroom closet behind a false door. They can use it as a safe room. An intruder wouldn’t know it existed,” Wingfield said.

In new construction, there’s no “limit to the possibilities,” said Dr. Ernst Kiesling, a research faculty member at Texas Tech and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, a non-profit dedicated to storm shelter quality.

“There’s a wide variety of shelters: steel, concrete, above ground, below ground; there are those that are built outside and those installed under a garage slab,” he said.

Greg Smith, who owns 3M Storm Shelters near Fort Worth said he has a three-week backlog of installations for his above- and below-ground steel safe rooms that start at $3,800 and go up to $7,000 for an in-ground garage shelter.

“You don’t have to go underground anymore. The way these shelters are engineered they are almost impenetrable. They will and have withstood direct hits from EF-5 tornadoes, and none have ever been reported sheared off,” he said.

“We’re doing shelters for people from every walk of life, in all parts of town,” he said, adding that he also finances shelters for customers with bad credit. “We try to provide a storm shelter for everybody.”

Carol Green decided she needed a shelter when she saw the devastation from the May 15 EF-4 Granbury tornado, which killed six. It packed wind speeds of 180 mph and literally wiped homes off their foundations.

Green’s home wasn’t damaged but the tornado was too close for comfort.

“I was standing outside and saw it coming. I was shocked when I saw the devastation. We live on the north end of the lake; every time we get a storm, it seems to move through here.”

“I said, ‘Man, we’ve dodged the bullet so many times; we have to get one,’” said Green, who the next day ordered an in-ground garage shelter big enough for 10 to 12 people.

At the nearby Rancho Brazos neighborhood, which was heavily damaged by the tornado, four homeowners have added storm shelters, said Steve Davidson of Habitat for Humanity of Hood County, Texas, which built many of the homes.

Habitat has constructed 11 additional houses since the storm and has fitted them with “strong rooms,” he said. The reinforced bathrooms wouldn’t survive a direct hit by an EF-5 tornado but would be good protection in a lesser storm, Davidson said.

The walls are mounted with base plates and anchored to the slab. The rooms are double-studded and lined with 14-gauge steel and covered with oriented strand board.

“It adds $1,200 to the cost. It’s our best shot at beefing up what we’ve got,” Davidson said.

The May 25 tornado in Moore, which killed 25, pushed Stephanie and Paul Klimas to equip their Burleson, Texas, garage with a 10-person safe room.

“My husband does a lot of work in Oklahoma and he was driving through when that horrible tornado hit. We had considered it before — we’ve lived in Oklahoma and we’ve seen the damage that can be done — it just pushed us to do it,” Stephanie Klimas said.

“We got it big enough to shelter neighbors. It has been a neighborhood curiosity,” she said.

The Klimases also got in on the FEMA rebate program run by the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which pays up to 50 percent, or $3,000, towards the cost of a shelter.

The program is a barometer of local demand. It now has a waiting list of nearly 10,000, said Molly Thoerner, emergency preparedness director for the 16-county council.

The $2.3 million rebate program funded around 450 shelters last year and will help pay for another 400 this year, she said.

“We are going to keep applying for additional funds. There’s a lot of demand for it,” she said. Program participants must use safe room producers and installers that are members of either the National Storm Shelter Association or the American Tornado Shelter Association.

Kim Good of Fort Worth was waiting at her computer at 1:30 a.m. last spring when the North Texas rebate program opened and was the first on the list.

“I have always wanted one and Moore changed everything; it pushed me over the edge. My husband was in Oklahoma City when it came through. He drove through Moore and saw it,” Good said.

They bought an eight-person above-ground safe room that could also shelter relatives who live nearby.

“I was getting it if it was $2,000 or $20,000. I didn’t care,” Good said.

Of the 1,809 tornado-damaged homes in Moore, more than 800 added storm shelters through a $3.75 million city rebate program, said Deidre Ebrey, director of economic development and marketing for the city of 58,000. All told, the rebate program will fund 1,500 shelters.

Ebrey and her sister both got in-ground storm shelters installed in their garages as Christmas gifts from their parents.

“Only in Oklahoma could that be meaningful. It’s mental and emotional security. It’s the very best defense for these storms. I’ve lived here my whole life and I didn’t realize the amount of comfort it would give us just knowing that it is there,” she said.

Wind scientists at Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute pioneered work in above-ground shelters. In 1974, researchers developed the first “safe rooms” that could be built in a closet.

That work led to the development of standards for above-ground shelters that are endorsed by FEMA, said Kiesling, who has been involved in shelter research for 50 years.

The NSSA’s criteria for testing is the only accredited standard for safe rooms, he said, adding that only about 12 to 15 percent of storm shelter producers are members.

“It’s a costly and time-consuming process. I would guess it takes $6,000 to $8,000 to do that,” said Kiesling, who views the American Tornado Shelter Association as a “listing service.”

But Smith, of the ATSA, says its members meet FEMA standards.

“We hold them to high standards and they pay for testing at Texas Tech to be able to put our seal on their shelters,” she said.

Prices, Kiesling said, are all over the map, depending on size and quality of finish. The smallest manufactured shelter holds three people and starts at over $3,000.

A homeowner should expect to pay in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $6,000 for a typical family-sized shelter, he said.

Prices are significantly lower in Oklahoma due to higher demand and competition, Smith said.

“Probably the most popular one today mounts underneath the garage slab with a sliding door so you have underground protection without losing a parking space,” said Kiesling, who recommends locating a shelter so it is accessible without going outdoors.

“If it’s outdoors, people have a tendency to wait too long,” he said.

Because of shifting soil in North Texas, most newer homes are equipped with post-tension cables in the slabs to stabilize them, and installing in-ground shelters is not recommended, Wingfield said.

Keisling said NSSA-certified shelters “don’t claim absolute safety. But the fact is for anything you can reasonably expect from an EF-5 tornado, I think storm shelters offer near absolute protection.”

Kim Good hopes to never find out.

“My granddaughter wanted to know when we are going to use it and I said, ‘Hopefully never.’”

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