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Oklahoma tornadoes: Lack of storm shelters floors newcomers to Tornado Alley

Disasters like the tornado that damaged much of Moore on Monday can convince people to build shelters

by Richard Mize Modified: May 25, 2013 at 10:37 am •  Published: May 25, 2013

Newcomers, a lot of them, really do think it’s crazy that not every house in Oklahoma has a storm shelter.

For them, disasters like the tornado that tore through Moore and south Oklahoma City on Monday — and the ones that destroyed or damaged homes in Edmond, Norman, Shawnee, Bethel Acres and Carney the day before — confirm it. Death is especially convincing.

The Lenows

Patrick Lenow and his wife, Kim, moved here from Southern California and bought a house earlier this year without a shelter, but wasted no time in having one installed. The house, on NE 111 northeast of Hefner Road and Air Depot Boulevard, was built in 2008.

He said he was surprised that most of the houses they considered had no shelters.

“You know, I was, in the case of our house, especially. The previous owner was a family with two small children,” said Lenow, vice president of public relations for Sonic Corp.

The Lenows both are from Orange County, Calif., and previously lived in the Portland, Ore., area before moving to Oklahoma. Earthquakes, they know — and that helps them sort of understand what to some newcomers seems to be a lackadaisical outlook toward severe weather.

“It’s all what you’re accustomed to. I grew up in earthquake country. You get a cavalier attitude,” he said.

But early on while shopping for a house, he said they were “told of the wisdom of getting a safe room or storm shelter.” Smart Shelters Inc. said the timing, in the dead of winter, was right — it could be installed in about 30 days. After the first severe spring storm, the waiting list could grow to four months or more.

On April 9, the shelter was installed: a below-ground safe place, with room for six, positioned in the garage where a car can provide protection from a collapsed house or other debris — unless, of course, the vehicle itself gets blown away.

And Sunday, Kim Lenow headed underground — twice — as Patrick was flying in from California with another newcomer: Sandra Lenow, his mother. Her reaction to flying in with the wind? “She put it in one word: ‘Exciting,’” Patrick Lenow said.

The $3,000 was money well spent, he said, covering cutting out existing garage slab, excavating dirt, installing the shelter, reinforcing it with concrete and adding finish.

“It may seem like a stretch, but it really is a good investment,” he said.

The Smiths

Jeff and Cindy Smith moved to Edmond from Roswell, N.M., last year. They, too, were floored not to find safe rooms or shelters in the houses they considered buying. They bought a house in Edmond’s Iron Horse Ranch Estates addition, north of Coffee Creek Road and west of Coltrane Road.

“It was surprising to me. We just figured every house had a safe room in Oklahoma,” said Jeff Smith, president and CEO of PrimeSource Mortgage in Oklahoma City. “The builder downplayed it. He said he’d never seen one (a tornado).”

Realtor Anne Wilson, who was assisting the Smiths, took them aside and gave them a talk she tells more and more these days.

“Two years ago, I had three friends who lost their houses,” said Wilson, an agent with Paradigm Advantage Real Estate. “What I do is I tell the stories.”

Newcomers, “They’re scared when they hear,” she said. “Of course, the more F4s and F5s we get under our belt, the more we know about them.”

Wilson is an Edmond native. She has childhood memories of severe weather coming and going, and when a tornado warning sounded, her father opening all the windows of the house, which was advised then, as she kept playing or watching TV.

“It’s different now,” she said, meaning the weather itself. Tornadoes lately have been more severe and have left worst damage than she remembers from years before, she said. Some people want a safe room — a reinforced room built inside a house above ground, she said, but “I tell them, ‘You’ve got to get underground.’”

For the Smiths, it was a two-step process to buy a new home — built in 2012 — and get a shelter.

“We fell in love with our house first. It did not have a storm shelter. It was going to be a long wait, a two- or three-month-long wait,” Jeff Smith said.

Ground Zero Storm Shelters, with offices in Perry and a showroom in Oklahoma City, got it installed sooner, he said, because someone ahead of them had to cancel.

“Now we’ve got a steel box under our garage,” Smith said. It was there for him, Cindy and Jazzy, their Yorkshire terrier, to ride out last weekend’s weather. “We actually used it the day the tornado hit Shawnee,” he said, and let friends and family elsewhere know they were safe by posting a picture of them all in the shelter on Facebook.

The Luxes

Brian and Alexis Lux aren’t exactly newcomers. They moved to Oklahoma City from Ohio in 2008, renting a house until last summer. Brian said he worries less about severe weather here than he did in Ohio because of the exhaustive, expert media coverage.

But not at first.

“That was my first question to the place we rented from,” said Brian Lux, a buyer for MD Building Products in Oklahoma City. They were told, “Watch your neighbors. If your neighbors leave, you leave.” He said he thought: “Oh my gosh! This is Tornado Alley. If the neighbors leave we leave? That’s it?”

He has since come to appreciate the weather service being in Norman and local weather coverage that is either a marvel or a source of envy to people in other parts of the world.

So they do not have a storm shelter at their home on NW 43 just west of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lux compares weather coverage here to where he grew up in northeast Ohio.

“In Ohio, there’s no warning system. It’s scary,” he said, adding: “Maybe because I didn’t grow up here, I have a false sense of security.”

Come to think of it, he said, after the tornado Monday in Moore, maybe he and his wife will consider getting a shelter.

by Richard Mize
Real Estate Editor
Real estate editor Richard Mize has edited The Oklahoman's weekly residential real estate section and covered housing, commercial real estate, construction, development, finance and related business since 1999. From 1989 to 1999, he worked...
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