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Demand, Interest in Storm Shelters High Following Moore, OK Tornado

Storm Shelter
A concrete, outdoor shelter/safe room, produced by Missouri Storm Shelters, weighing a total of 19,000 pounds/Credit: Scott Harvey

Crews are continuing to sift through the rubble of Monday’s deadly tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma.  It’s another reminder for residents in Tornado Alley of the benefits of a storm shelter. But as KSMU’s Scott Harvey reports, this comes months after the ideal time to purchase one. 

“These come in about any size you can imagine. Anywhere from as small as the customer might want it, 3’ x 4’, all the way up to 8’ x 24’, and then if people want them bigger than that we modulate them together,” Olsen says.

Jeff Olsen is the founder of Missouri Storm Shelters, based in Nixa. He says one of the biggest challenges is convincing people to buy what are known as safe rooms, before the severe weather season hits.

“Most people, unfortunately, procrastinate. We’ve tried like crazy for 10 years to figure out how to get people to buy shelters during the slower storm season, which would be fall and winter. And some do, but most of em wait until after an event, and they all come in at one time, and they all can’t understand why they have to wait.”

Olsen says this time of year; it typically takes between 4-6 weeks to deliver the customer a finished safe room. His company’s shelters can be found in 24 states, but Olsen says you won’t find as many here in the Ozarks as you might think. He estimates there is one shelter for every 1,000 homes in Springfield.

In order to ensure the best protection for their customers, Missouri Storm Shelters has their structures debris-impact tested, and makes sure they each meet the criteria from FEMA and the National Association of Storm Shelters, a non-profit organization that verifies the quality of construction and installation of safe rooms.

“I think we are the only manufacturer in Missouri that is a National Storm Shelter Association member. It’s quite a process, it takes a lot of work and it’s costly, but we can sleep at night knowing that everybody is safe,” Olsen said.

According to Olsen, the company’s safe rooms, whether they’re prefabricated, concrete, or concrete in-ground, have all been approved to withstand a 250 mph tornado, which is more than the threshold of an EF-5.

The 2011 Joplin tornado, which marks its second anniversary Wednesday, had wind speeds measuring more than 200 mph. Community members will come together Wednesday afternoon to honor those lost and highlight the recovery effort. Olsen’s company has an office in Joplin, and says their safe rooms have been popular in the city.

Among the structures destroyed in Moore, Oklahoma Monday were two elementary schools, where initial reports indicate numerous children died.

In Springfield, the city’s public school system has incorporated a bigger safe room model. Thanks to a $1.6 million grant from FEMA, which covered about 75 percent of the costs, Jeffries Elementary is equipped with a safe room that can withstand an EF-5, and fit more than 500 people, or the amount of its students and staff. When school is not in session, community members living within a half mile radius of the facility along South Scenic Avenue are allowed to use the safe room during emergencies.

Dave Bishop is the director of facilities with Springfield Public Schools.

“FEMA’s recommendation and the way that safe rooms are designed is that within five minutes of a tornado siren sounding, anyone that’s eligible should be able to walk to the shelter, or run – depending on the situation – but should be able to access the shelter within five minutes of a tornado siren sounding,” Bishop said.

Bishop anticipates that the school will send notices to the community members eligible to use the facility within the next couple weeks.

In addition to Jeffries, Hillcrest High School and Westport Elementary School also have safe rooms. Bishop says the school has applications into FEMA for the construction of three more. As for the schools that don’t have active safe rooms in place, Bishop says they have a crisis plan that’s individually tailored to each site.

“We do a walkthrough with emergency management to determine which location is best, based on structure and building materials, to figure out where those students would be safest,” said Bishop.

“Here’s the first safe room we ever had tested. That’s where the 2x4’s hit the skin...” Olsen explains.

Back at the office of Missouri Storm Shelters, Jeff Olsen shows me the damage caused to a steel shelter by a 2x4 shot from an air cannon at 100 mph (See a video of the shelter being shot with a 2x4). The dent is less than an inch thick; meeting the standard of no more than three inches. Outside, we observe an outdoor concrete shelter weighing 11,000 pounds, anchored by a concrete slab that is two yards thick and weighs 8,000 pounds.

Of course, with all that material and the testing these structures receive, the price can be substantial, ranging from a few thousand dollars to closer to $10,000. But Olsen says if you can afford a safe room, it should be a top priority.

“To me, your family’s protection should be before anything else. I mean, I think that’s just good common sense.”

And regardless of your shelter situation, officials say you’re not completely safe unless you have a plan of what to do when severe weather and other emergencies strike.

For KSMU news, I’m Scott Harvey.