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Storm shelter industry sees booming business after tornadoes

Saturday, April 15, 2006

RIDGELY, Tenn. -- Fain Storm Shelters in Jackson usually sells about 10 steel-reinforced concrete shelters in an average week.

But it was no average week when a string of tornadoes ravaged Tennessee earlier this month, ripping up thousands of homes and killing 36 people in four counties.

"We've sold over a hundred (shelters)," the store's owner, Debbie Fain, said a few days after the first tornadoes hit.

Tennessee has a history of deadly thunderstorms, and the latest ones have people thinking hard about how to stay safe next time. Storm shelter companies have seen a huge increase in business, and people are making sure they can find nearby community shelters.

Another store in Jackson, Steel Storm Shelters, has been so inundated with inquiries that it's set up an answering machine for callers to leave messages.

"People buy them because they feel secure. They don't want to take a chance in the house," Fain said.

The box-shaped structures have walls and ceilings made of thick, steel-reinforced concrete, and range in size from about 9-by-5 feet to about 12-by-6 feet. The smaller ones can hold up to eight people, and the larger ones can shelter up to 22. The shelters range in price from about $2,000 to $3,395.

Buried or anchored

The shelters are buried underground in a customer's back yard or planted into the side of a hill. They can also be anchored down above ground "for those people who don't like to go underground," Fain said.

All the shelters include a 10-gauge steel door, two 6-inch air vents, a thick sealant to prevent leaking, indoor/outdoor carpet and a battery-powered light, according to the company's Web site.

Fain says its shelters can withstand the destructive force of an F4 tornado, just one level below the worst possible tornado based on the Fujita scale used by the National Weather Service.

Weather officials have said F3 tornadoes caused the recent destruction in Tennessee, with winds of 158 to 206 mph.

"If some of those people had had storm shelters, they'd probably still be here," Fain said.

Motivated by tragedy

Andrew Jackson doesn't doubt her. The 66-year-old who lives in Dyersburg, a small town in western Tennessee near the worst tornado damage, purchased a Fain shelter after the storms killed one of his close friends.

"I'd been procrastinating about getting one, but the death of my friend motivated me," Jackson said.

Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association in Lubbock, Texas, said interest in storm shelters usually escalates after a significant number of deaths caused by severe weather.

Some people in Ridgely, a small town in the state's northwest corner, took refuge in a publicly funded shelter.

Howard Todd is a school system facilities supervisor who oversaw the construction of a storm shelter in a hallway at Lara Kendall Elementary School in Ridgely. He said the shelter is strong enough to withstand winds of up to 300 mph.

Instead of ducking in the bathtub or hiding in a closet, about 180 people flocked to the elementary school during the recent round of storms.

The hallway is 262 feet long and 12 feet wide and can accommodate about 700 people -- more than half the entire population of Ridgely. Its walls and ceiling are also made of concrete reinforced with steel.

The school system decided to build the shelter after a series of tornadoes hit the city of Jackson and other parts of West Tennessee in May 2003, killing 11 people and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage.

It cost the county only about $35,000 because the state chipped in some money, Todd said.

"We thought it was a real great idea for us. We'd had the history of a lot of tornadoes," he said. "So far it has really been worth it. We've got the safest place in the community to put a kid."

Whether small or large, storm shelters are important because tornadoes can pop up so quickly, officials said. Unlike hurricanes, which can be detected days in advance, it's almost impossible to tell where a single tornado will touch down.

Jeremy Baker of Newbern said he saw the tornado warnings on television, but didn't actually know one was coming until he looked out his back door and saw it approaching. The 25-year-old quickly got his wife and daughter and jumped in the tub, where they safely rode out the storm.

"A tornado can sneak up on you," said Baker, whose house was damaged.

Meteorologist Jody Aaron with the National Weather Service in Memphis said the cells that produce tornadoes are easy to see on radar, but individual tornadoes aren't.

"Even though a tornado could be half-a-mile wide, in comparison to the cell it's coming from, it's very small," Aaron said. "The cell could be counties' wide."

He said weather officials are continuing to study "what goes on in tornadoes" in an effort to predict them better. In the meantime, people like Andrew Jackson can have a little peace of mind knowing they have a shelter nearby.

"God gave us enough sense to find shelter," he said.


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