The last few years have been some of the most active
seasons in history.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
(NOAA), there were at least 1,691 twisters in the U.S. in 2011, and
an estimated 550 fatalities, making it the fourth-deadliest year on
High death tolls and the fear that killer tornadoes could strike
with little warning have many
literally scrambling for cover. The storm shelter business is
booming and there are a variety of options that can offer
protection from even the most powerful storms.
Shelter industry booming due to fear of storms
Ken Nix, co-owner of TSW Storm Shelters in Collierville, Tenn.,
says business has almost tripled in the past three years. TSW
installed 266 shelters in 2011 and is on track to exceed that
number in 2012. Nix says that fear has been a main driver in
prompting homeowners to install shelters.
Do you have to pay your mortgage if your house is
"As the sirens start going off, our phones start ringing. It's
all tied to the weather. When these big storms start hitting,
people start thinking about installing a shelter again," says
Most shelters start at an average of $3,000 to $6,000. TSW's
smaller shelter can hold six to eight people and currently runs
$5,400 including installation.
Many manufacturers are reporting waiting periods due to a surge
in demand. Steve Mader, president of Crest Precast Concrete in La
Crescent, Minn., says his company recently started producing
precast concrete units to meet the growing market for residential
"More frequent and severe storms have people looking for
shelters, and we see that because traffic to our website is
booming. People are looking for something affordable to protect
their family," says Mader.
While many homeowners head to their basements during tornadoes,
basements don't always offer the best protection. Experts say that
unless the basement was specifically built as a shelter and secured
with concrete and reinforced steel, there's a good chance the home
could collapse into the basement itself.
Various types of shelters available
Tornado shelters come in various sizes, shapes and materials.
The most common are steel and reinforced-concrete boxes that either
sit above ground anchored to a slab or are placed underground. They
typically hold six to eight people on a bench in a small confined
area and have ventilation holes and a solid steel door.
TSW's shelters are usually placed below ground in a garage. Nix
says it's a six-hour process for his crew to punch through the
slab, drop the shelter in place and seal it up with concrete. When
it's done, all that's left is a small door in the garage floor.
Homeowners can even park their vehicle on top of it.
Other shelters sit above ground. While many put functionality
over aesthetics, Mader said Crest's product has a more appealing
design that looks good in a yard when not in use.
"It has some architectural elements to it. It's not a box. It
has a gable roof and a more residential appearance," he says.
Most shelters on the market are constructed using FEMA
guidelines 320 and 351. Crest's Residential Storm Hut is made of
6,000 PSI concrete with grade 60 rebar and weighs more than 18,000
pounds. Such a shelter can withstand the winds of an F5 tornado and
even take the brunt of a vehicle smashing against it.
"It will not slide, slip or roll in an EF5 with winds of up to
250 miles per hour. It's three times heavier than a tractor trailer
and has a small surface area," says Mader.
Above ground versus below ground
Tom Bennett, past president of the National Storm Shelter
Association and current vice president of Jim Giles' Safe Rooms in
Tulsa, Okla., says that in terms of safety, the more accessible a
shelter is, the more likely it is going to be used.
"The more convenience there is for a shelter the more people are
likely to use it. If it's not convenient, you might not want to run
to it until it is too late," says Bennett.
Giles offers three models of box-style shelters that are
anchored to the slab above ground in garages. They range in price
from $5,000 to $8,000 installed.
Proponents of above-ground shelters say it makes it easier for
rescuers to find survivors after a storm. When a house is
completely devastated, Bennett says it's easy to spot the big white
boxes because they're often the only things remaining. Since
there's no climb-down stairs they also tend to be more accessible
for the handicapped and elderly.
Proponents of below-ground shelters say the biggest advantage is
that they don't take up any space and are unseen. The fact that
they're so convenient and can be accessed without going outside is
also a major selling point.
Nix says there is little threat of not being found in
below-ground shelters because the company keeps GPS coordinates of
every shelter it installs. In the event of a neighborhood being
leveled, TSW can notify authorities of the exact location of its
Some contractors also offer custom-built storm shelters that can
be placed elsewhere in the home. In new-home construction in
Tornado Alley, many builders are offering under-the-slab units in
the center of the home or under the stairwell.
"You may get a shelter and never go in there. Or you might spend
only 30 minutes in there and it could save your life," says