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Oklahoma businesses plan ahead to keep employees safe during storms

After a brutal spring that saw the Oklahoma City metro area hit with multiple storms, more businesses are looking to install shelters to protect their employees.
BY BRIANNA BAILEY Modified: July 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm •  Published: July 21, 2013

After Bank of Oklahoma's operations center near Interstates 40 and 44 faced severe storm damage during the outbreak of tornadoes May 31, the company decided to spend about $9,000 to build an aboveground concrete bunker to protect its employees from future storms.

The company feared that the metal-framed operations center would be “turned into a pin cushion” by debris from a neighboring building supply business should the area be hit with another tornado, said Ray Magill, vice president of corporate real estate services for Bank of Oklahoma.

“This year finally justified building it for us,” Magill said. “Hopefully we never have to use it.”

Construction on the roughly 800-square-foot bunker with eight-inch, steel-reinforced walls has not yet begun.

But once completed, Bank of Oklahoma estimates that it will be able to fit about 75 operations center employees in the bunker should they face the threat of another tornado.

Another 25 workers can squeeze into the operations center's bank vault in the event of a storm.

The bunker will also be equipped with camp toilets and tools that workers can use to force open the door and clear debris after a storm passes.

Disaster concerns

After a brutal spring that saw the Oklahoma City metro area hit with multiple storms, more businesses are looking to install shelters to protect their employees.

At Tinker Federal Credit Union in Moore, 14 employees and eight customers survived the May 20 tornado by hiding out in the safe deposit vault, although rest of the building was leveled. Employees at Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant on SW 19 Street in Moore were similarly saved by seeking shelter in the eatery's walk-in cooler during the storm.

“The Moore tornado occurred during the day while most people were still at work, so many businesses are looking to do something to keep their employees safe,” said Corey Churchill, owner of Oklahoma City-based Weather Tech, which sells and installs storm shelters.

Like many of his customers now inquiring about storm shelters, Churchill's home in Moore was leveled in the May 20 tornado and his business office near Interstate 240 also sustained heavy damage from one of several tornadoes that hit the metro area on May 31.

Since May 20, he estimates that he has been inundated with 50 or 60 calls a day since the storms with inquiries about storm shelters, including from business owners.

Financing tougher

Although homeowners can get up to a 75 percent refund on the cost of a storm shelter through the state's FEMA-backed Sooner Safe program, there is a lack of incentives and rebates for businesses looking to install a storm shelter for employees, Churchill said.

Homeowners can still apply for the rebate but the program is on hold for the moment for lack of funding.

The Small Business Administration offers help in the form low-interest rate disaster recovery loans for businesses and homeowners to repair storm damage.

Businesses can be eligible for loans with 4 percent interest as part of the program, but it's not clear that the loan money can be used to build a storm shelter, SBA Spokesman Jerry Colton said.

“There is money available for mitigation efforts to keep the same damage from occurring again, such as if you have a river near your property and it rises, there might be some money to build a wall to keep your land from eroding. But typically this does not include storm shelters,” Colton said.

SBA financing is available if a city changes its building codes to require storm shelters for a business that is rebuilding, Colton said

In the wake of this spring's storms, Oklahoma City-based First Fidelity bank is offering low-interest rate loans of up to $5,000 to both homeowners and businesses to purchase and install storm shelters.

Ryan Cross, senior vice president of Bank of Oklahoma and business market manager for Oklahoma City, said owner-occupied businesses can obtain financing for a storm shelter through a traditional real estate loan.

Increasingly, funding to build a storm shelter or safe room is included in the construction loans Bank of Oklahoma makes, Cross said.

“It's definitely more at the top of people's minds than it used to be,” he said.

Protecting employees

Clark Oil Distributors, an oil product and lubrication distributor, is installing a 10-person storm shelter at its Oklahoma City offices near Interstate 240, just across the highway from where Weather Tech's offices stood before a tornado ripped through the area May 31.

GE Oil and Gas also applied recently for building permits to install six storm shelters at its Oklahoma City offices at 55000 SE 59 Street. The company's Oklahoma City base is also near the path of one of the May 31 tornadoes.

“I think if you have been procrastinating on getting a storm shelter, this is the year that convinced you to get one,” Magill said.

Clark Oil's business narrowly missed a direct hit from the tornado, which convinced the company to buy a storm shelter, said Kari Reed, office manager for Clark Oil.

“We are going to make sure our employees are safe and below ground is the best way to go,” Reed said.

It will cost Clark Oil about $3,000 to purchase the shelter and have it installed.

“When you think of how much an employee's life is worth, it's worth it,” Reed said.