Tornadoes lead to uptick in interest for storm 'safe rooms'

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by JONATHAN BETZ

WFAA

Posted on June 4, 2013 at 7:17 PM

DALLAS –- The recent devastation in Oklahoma has prompted a surge of demand for tornado safe rooms. Yet, those within the industry say the demand to go underground is no longer necessarily required.

“I, personally, prefer above-ground [shelters]… I have one for my family,” said Russell Mims, owner of Family Safe Texas.

His company sells safe rooms that can be installed both above- and below-ground, yet he prefers taking shelter above ground.

“It’s the one I recommend for everyone,” he said.

For years, authorities urged homeowners in tornado alley to build underground storm shelters, often many feet away from the home. But in recent years, companies have begun selling and pushing storm-proof “safe rooms.”

Essentially, they’re 2,000-pound steel boxes that can withstand the 200 mph winds of an EF-5 tornado. Crews bolt them into a concrete foundation, often in a home’s garage.

Mims says his boxes (which start at $5,000) can support the weight of 25 cars. He claims the shelter can even withstand the impact of a tractor trailer.

“It’s going to be safe,” he said. “It’d go right through the house, and the trailer would basically fold in half over the top of [the safe room.]”

Fears of flooding have encouraged him to push customers towards the steel boxes, even though he also sells underground shelters complete with a hydraulic lift, which can push debris off the door if the person becomes trapped.

“That is the number-one reason why we have those hydraulic lifts on ours, so that if it does fill with water, you can get out of our unit no matter what,” he said.

Underground shelters are still extremely safe; they erase almost all the risk that comes from the wind.

“They are equally safe,” said Larry Tanner with Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute, which studies and tests safe rooms. “They are all tested to the same standards.”

Tanner recently returned from Moore, Okla., where he surveyed shelters that survived the storm -- most of them below ground.

“We did notice some shelters take in a fair amount of water,” he said, “but not a fatal amount.”

He said flooding is a remote possibility when people seek refuge below ground, “but isn’t probable.”

Tanner worries more about how they're built. He strongly recommends doors of all shelters have at least three locks and hinges; and that people make sure they have supplies inside, including a whistle.

The bigger risk, Tanner says, is simply being left exposed -- an assessment many homeowners are now agreeing with.

“If it saves your life one day or your family’s life, I think it’s worth it,” said John Donaghey, who recently had a safe room installed in his Prosper home.

E-mail jbetz@wfaa.com

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