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Oklahoma tornadoes: Storm shelter installations spike after storms, records show

Officials said numerous lives were saved by people seeking refuge in residential storm shelters. A review of Oklahoma City property permit data shows large spikes after central Oklahoma tornadoes in 1999, 2003 and more recently.
by Paul Monies Modified: May 22, 2013 at 10:26 pm •  Published: May 23, 2013

BETHEL ACRES — For former Shawnee police officer Jeff Rodgers and his wife, Dawna, the days of huddling in a hallway, covering themselves with mattresses and strapping on motorcycle helmets as a storm barrels down are over.

The Bethel Acres residents installed an aboveground safe room last week, just days before Sunday's tornado devastated the nearby Steelman Estates mobile home park, about half a mile from the Rodgers' house.

Rodgers, 45, who was shot in the line of duty in 1999 and uses a motorized wheelchair, said at least two tornadoes came close to their home in the last few years. Sunday was the first time he felt peace of mind during a storm.

“We had been wanting a safe place to go because I can't get underground,” Rodgers said. “Being retired law enforcement, I've seen the devastation these tornadoes can do.”

At nearby Steelman Estates, Bill Stoops raced back to his house Sunday afternoon and was the last of eight people crammed into an old storm cellar in his backyard. His home is gone. His Suburban sport-utility vehicle is wrapped around a tree in his debris-littered yard.

“I was the last one in. I watched it come over the trees,” Stoops said Wednesday as neighbors and volunteers around him cleared rubble and sorted belongings. “By the time I got in that cellar, that tornado was on the back side of these trees over there. It was so fast for me. I guess you'd have to have a lot of good luck on your side to survive this. Your chances are slim.”

Sunday's tornadoes in Edmond and Shawnee, and the massive one that tore through Moore on Monday, have again put residential storm shelters and safe rooms back into the public eye. Officials said numerous lives were saved by storm shelters.

Thousands in the metro

Oklahoma City has more than 14,200 residential storm shelters registered, said Beth Crounse, manager of the city's Action Center. Moore and Edmond each have about 3,100 storm shelters registered, while Midwest City has more than 1,750.

Officials said they can't stress enough the importance of registration. Using global positioning system data, the exact location of shelters is shared with police, firefighters and other emergency personnel to locate residents after storms. That's because street signs blow away. Debris can pile on top of below-ground shelters or against the doors of aboveground shelters.

“If you realize you're trapped in a shelter, at least you know you're alive,” said Larry Tanner, a research associate at the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University. “Search and rescue will find you. But you need to register that shelter with your first responder. You might be trapped for a while. You need a noisemaker like a whistle or a really good air horn to sound if you're covered in debris.”

Demand spikes after storms

A review of Oklahoma City building permits since 1999 shows several spikes in storm shelter permits after major tornadoes hit central Oklahoma. Permits more than doubled in 2000, the first year after the May 3, 1999, tornado cut through Moore. They spiked again in 2003 and 2004, followed by a relatively stable period from 2006 to 2010.

Major tornadoes in Piedmont, as well as those further afield in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., may have led to permits leaping from 468 in 2010 to 1,224 in 2011. Last year, more than 2,400 Oklahoma City property owners installed storm shelters.

The data is just a snapshot from one large city, and storm shelter permits may be tied to other factors such as incentives from homebuilders or government rebate programs.

Busy season

Vince Mims, owner of Tulsa-based FamilySafe, said his company and its network of dealers in 10 states stays busy throughout the year. The company installs about 500 storm shelters annually in the Oklahoma City area. Inquires always jump in the spring and after devastating storms, Mims said. That was no different this week.

“We got about 300 to 400 emails on Tuesday asking about shelters and another 35 voice mails that we spent all night trying to answer and get back to customers,” Mims said.

Residential storm shelters typically cost between $2,000 and $5,000. But they can cost more than $10,000 if they have mechanized doors or other upgrades.

Tanner, whose institute tests storm shelter models for the industry, said the construction has come a long way since the days of root cellars or “fraidy holes,” he said.

“I remember my grandparents having an earthen cellar with a wood door on it,” Tanner said. “My grandmother kept her canning supplies down there and I didn't want to go down there because there were snakes and spiders.”

Tanner said doors are the weakest link of any shelter. Buyers should make sure doors are tested to meet federal guidelines specified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Aboveground shelters are quick and easy to access, but they also give you a daily return on your investments, because it might be a laundry room or store room,” Tanner said. “Most below-ground shelters are sitting in the backyard. Most people delay going to them until the storm is right upon them. They subject themselves and their families to being injured by such a late delay.”

Demand increasing

Andrew Zagorski Jr., owner of Oz Saferooms in Del City, said his company has sold almost 500 of the safe rooms in Oklahoma since 1998. His father, Andrew Sr., developed a new process for pouring the concrete for the safe rooms in one pour around steel rebar. There are no seams between the thick floors, walls or ceilings, he said.

“Demand is growing,” Zagorski said. “I do very minimal advertising, but we've been staying booked throughout the year.”

Rodgers, who spent $11,000 on his safe room from Oz Saferooms, said he was impressed by the sturdy concrete construction. The sliding steel door weighs more than 300 pounds. It was built in the backyard near his patio, just 10 seconds from the house.

“To get that safe and secure feeling is worth what we spent,” Rodgers said. “It's a frightening feeling to not have a real safe place to go. But when the storm is over, you just thank God you made and you didn't get hit.”

Rodgers, who was shot twice during a routine traffic stop in 1999, said the safe room lifts a huge burden from him and his wife, who is his full-time caregiver. The couple has been together for 17 years.

“It's one less thing she has to worry about because she takes care of me 24/7,” Rodgers said. “Now she knows we both have a safe place to go and we don't have to worry about it. Fifteen or 20 seconds, we're in here and the door is locked.”

Rebate programs

FEMA provides money under its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to states and cities for storm shelter rebates, safe rooms at schools and other projects. How much the state receives depends on previous disasters. The federal government provides 75 percent of the money for each project, with states, cities or counties contributing the other 25 percent.

Oklahoma had 20,000 applications for its SoonerSafe rebate program and is able to provide up to $2,000 rebates for storm shelters to more than 500 people this year, said Keli Cain, spokeswoman for the Office of Emergency Management.

Previous versions of the SoonerSafe program came after the 1999 Moore tornado and tornadoes in the Oklahoma City metro in 2003. Cain said the requirements have been tweaked over the years by FEMA.

In Yukon, the storm shelter grant program provided $1.3 million, enough rebates for more than 500 shelters. The city of 24,000 has more than 1,200 storm shelters registered.

“I'm a pretty conservative guy,” said Frosty Peak, Yukon's emergency management director. “I was really leery of the program myself, but it's been God's blessing. It's a great use of federal tax money.”

by Paul Monies
Energy Reporter
Paul Monies is an energy reporter for The Oklahoman. He has worked at newspapers in Texas and Missouri and most recently was a data journalist for USA Today in the Washington D.C. area. Monies also spent nine years as a business reporter and...
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