Storm shelter sales spike after deadly tornado outbreak - WSFX - FOX Wilmington, NC

Storm shelter sales spike after deadly tornado outbreak

A door and a concrete slab are all that's left standing of a home that was struck by a tornado in Mississippi. (Source: WLBT) A door and a concrete slab are all that's left standing of a home that was struck by a tornado in Mississippi. (Source: WLBT)

(RNN) - Storm shelter and safe room manufacturers are raking in sales after a record-breaking tornado outbreak killed more than 320 people in the Southeast.

David Tullos, with Tornado Shelters of Jackson, said his business has increased 300 percent since the late April disaster.

"People are scared of tornadoes, and then they have one hit this close to home," he said.

During the outbreak spanning April 27-28, tornadoes slammed into six states, reaching as far away as the East Coast.

Steve Willis is the co-owner of Safe Zone Shelters, which is based in Raleigh, VA. The company sells and installs storm shelters and safe rooms.

Are storm shelters a good idea?

The April 27 tornadoes prompted people to ask their home builders to put so-called "safe rooms" in their houses. We asked Facebook users if they've ever considered adding a safe room to their house – either new construction or an existing home. What do you think of this idea?


Heather Pierce Baker

"Seeing the devastation from not only the winds, but the trees, we are seeking financing now for an underground shelter in our backyard. I can't take any chances with the trees. I guess demand is quite high as I can't seem to get anyone to call or email me back from any local dealers."

Terri McCullers

"I was very fortunate. Our builder knew I wanted a basement because I was afraid of the types of storms we had on 4/27. Within our daylight basement, he built a room for me that we call our storm room. It is underneath our house's front porch (i.e. underground). It is concrete block all around with a steel door. The top is steel plates and the porch on top is concrete and brick. I don't know exactly what normally goes into a "storm room" but it is a huge comfort to me to have this in my house!!"

Dawn Avery

"How come there aren't more community wide storm shelters in our area? You would think in such a location where we have "tornado season" like Hunting season, we would be more prepared."

Kathleen Hayes

"we moved here almost two years ago and the selling point for us on this house was the underground shelter--I also think it should be standard with all new construction"

Marcia Crowe

"We have a storm shelter. I believe everyone should either have a safe room in their home or a storm shelter in their yard. Basements can be deadly also but with a concrete roof would be safe. You must protect yourself and your family in every way possible."

Dawn Smith

"I got really lucky - my place wasn't affected by the storms but when I get to a point where I can build a house it will definitely have a safe room in it. I talked to someone the other day that told me about people they knew building houses and then have a bedroom actually underground so they would have a place to go."

Don Morris

"In 1955 a major tornado devastated S. Morgan county. Within 2 weeks of that event everyone was building storm pits, the underground type. How many major tornadoes have hit that area since? 0. I still use my storm pit though!! Odds are you will not be hit by one. Just don't bet your life on that fact."

Melody Murray

"Not only do you need to consider tornadoes but there is also the issue of us being on the New Madrid Fault line. Where do you go in an earthquake? Sure makes you sit down on whatever seat you got and think about things."

Rebecca Allen

"I'm moving my safe place to the closet under the stairs in the basement. I am getting an air horn, camping gear, bottled water, radio, helmet ect"

He said calls and orders for storm shelters have almost doubled, increasing 97 percent.

Willis said he and his wife wake up to calls every morning, go out and work while getting more calls, and come home to even more.

He said that because the storms hit in an area that usually doesn't see tornadoes, people were frightened.

"It's one of those businesses that turns on frenzy; unfortunately, the latest storm was incredible in terms of loss of life and property and unfortunately it takes an event like that to create public awareness."

Willis got into the business of selling storm shelters after he and his family escaped two twisters by hiding in the crawl space of his in-laws' home.

He said he watched one tornado come down his driveway. It came within a yard of the home and destroyed a concrete block garage.

"I saw it, it was a perfect vortex, just perfect," he said.

Luckily, he and his family escaped.

Ernst Kiesling, Professor of Civil Engineering at Texas Tech University and Executive Director of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA), said tornadoes are always a bonanza for the storm shelter business.

He said he had heard of one dealer selling eight shelters in a single day.

"They see destruction on the television or the news and they're fearful of what happens to them," he said. "It's a very uncomfortable feeling to have a watch or warning for severe weather and not have anywhere to go."

Do they work

Josh Johnson, meteorologist with WSFA in Montgomery, AL, said storm shelters absolutely do work. They will keep you safe in a storm.

"Absolutely, storm shelters save lives. We have seen it in research and wind tunnels, we have seen it in the real world in tornado-damaged areas," he said. "There are multiple homes that we've seen where the only room left standing was a concrete-reinforced safe room, or people who have climbed out of underground basement-type storm shelters and said, 'I'm alive today because I had this in my home.'"

He said storm shelters are designed and rated to withstand wind speeds of up to 250, or even 300, miles per hour.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), EF5 tornadoes can generate winds higher than 250 miles per hour, but NOAA warns that it's very difficult to measure wind speeds during a tornado.

Shelters are built to withstand these devastating storms, whether they are built above or below ground.

Safe rooms are usually built with materials such as carbon-hardened steel or reinforced concrete, and are anchored to a concrete slab so wind can't get underneath them.

Johnson cautions that after huge events - such as the historic April tornado outbreak, which has received a great deal of media attention - there are many dishonest people looking to take advantage.

The NSSA warned in a statement: "Currently, there are no construction regulations in the storm shelter industry to protect the consumer. Few produces are willing to bear the costs of quality verification."

FEMA said in a statement that it can't certify builders, but it does publish a list of guidelines and blueprints that builders should follow when constructing safe rooms.

Johnson said when looking for a builder, go with someone you trust and find a licensed contractor.

"Most builders are honest and reputable, but there are always a few bad eggs in any industry," he said.

How to choose a storm shelter

Storm shelters, or safe rooms, can be built either above or below ground, inside a home or garage, or even outside. There are many things to consider before choosing the shelter that's best for you.

Tullos said his storm shelters could be built to hold anywhere from four to 20 people. Kiesling said community storm shelters were very popular in the Midwest, where people opt to install them in schools and other public buildings.

There were several options for people to install a storm shelter in their own home, Kiesling said, ranging from interior safe rooms, underground shelters and lean-to safe rooms that are built adjacent to a house.

Both Kiesling and Johnson said the most important thing to consider was the accessibility of the shelter for everyone in the family.

"A very very important consideration in the election of storm shelters is accessibility," Kiesling said.

For anyone with mobility issues, such as the elderly, a safe room that doesn't require stairs is the best option.

A safe room inside your home versus outside is a better option because by the time most people head toward shelter, the storm has already arrived and it's dangerous to go outside, Kiesling said.

However, most people still think underground is the best place to be during a tornado, he said.

Other things to consider before choosing a storm shelter include the type of house you live in, how high the water table is or if you're prone to flooding and how you want to use the shelter.

Safe rooms can be used as closets or secure storage, as well as panic rooms in case of a home invasion.

Tullos said storm shelters could be made to lock both from the inside and the outside.

In order to build an above-ground safe room, you must have either an existing concrete slab or have one poured specifically for the room, Tullos said.

Kiesling said that there was no way to anchor a safe room to a mobile home, so they are not an option for people who live in them.

Anyone who lives in a mobile home should consider a below-ground shelter.

If neither is an option, and you live in a vulnerable housing situation like a second-floor apartment or a mobile home, Johnson said your best bet is to plan ahead.

"Have a plan hours, days ahead of time, where if the weather gets bad, you have a family member or friend, a neighbor, you can go visit and spend some time with during the time that the weather is very, very bad," Johnson said.

If you find yourself in the middle of a tornado warning with no place to go, the last resort is leaving the mobile home and taking shelter in a ditch and covering your head.

During tornadoes, mobile homes have a tendency to tip over, and appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines become projectiles.

"I know it sounds crazy, but there have been people who have survived because they did that," Johnson said.

People in site-built homes, such as brick homes or siding homes, should take shelter on the first floor, Johnson said, and get on an interior wall in a small room, such as a bathroom, hallway or closet in the central part of the house.

"Don't be near an exterior wall; those are the first to fail in tornadoes," he said.

Federal grants can help pay for a life-saving shelter, which almost always costs thousands of dollars, to install.

Tullos said federal funding is available for building a storm shelter, but it's issued county by county. Residents should contact their local Emergency Management Agency (EMA) office for inquiries.

Kiesling said the money comes through FEMA when emergencies are declared in impacted areas, but it is up to states to decide how to distribute. Most of the money, he said, goes to flood prevention and recovery because it remains the most expensive disaster.

The sooner you act, the better. During busy times of year, EMA offices can be backlogged with requests and the grants are first come, first served.

Even if you forgo pursuing a grant, getting a storm shelter installed during a busy time of year can take a month or more because of the weeks it takes parts to ship and the time spent getting all of the required permits to build the shelter, Willis said.

Regardless of the feast and famine aspect of selling storm shelters, which drastically slow down in the winter and spike in the summer, Willis said there was nothing else he would rather do.

"I can't think of a better business to be in than saving someone's life."

Copyright 2011 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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