The Edmond Sun

May 2, 2014

Rush on storm shelter leading to long waits

Janelle Stecklein
The Edmond Sun

OKLA. CITY — Business booms this time of year for Norman’s Thunderground Storm Shelters.

Even though the company installs no less than 30 storm shelters a week, the wait to get one this time of year is at least two months. By the end of Oklahoma’s three-month tornado season, the company will have installed more than 500 underground shelters, and turned away disappointed customers who hoped for an immediate install.

“There are people out there that can say we can get it to you in two weeks,” said Garett Howerton, director of operations for Thunderground. “They’re either lying to make a sale or there’s a reason they’re not booked.”

But as footage of tornado-ravaged disaster areas — like the one in Quapaw that killed a man last weekend — flash across television screens, shelter companies across the state get bombarded by calls from frantic customers looking for a quick shelter install. By this time of year, the state’s established shelter companies already have long wait lists.

Jay Stephens, co-owner of Tornado King Storm Shelter, says it’s not uncommon to get offered a cash bonus, if he’ll expedite a customer’s install.

The Muskogee businessman said his company doesn’t do the bonus program, but always has “people that get really desperate,” after tornadoes hit and upon hearing that the wait for a storm shelter from his company this time of year is at least six weeks.

“Everyone waits until it’s on our mind,” Stephens said. “That’s the wrong time. If someone wants to order one today, it would be (June) before they can get it.”

He recommends consumers consider installing storm shelters during the off-season, which is typically from June to December.

Adding to consumer chaos this time of year is the fact the shelter industry is relatively new and has few regulations, said Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association and a research professor in the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University.

“A lot of jurisdictions do not have building inspectors that are well enough qualified to inspect a storm shelter,” Kiesling said. “It’s nothing like a building. You have a small slab that is anchored to a small concrete slab.”

Safety and a considerable monetary investment is also on the line, so Kiesling said it’s important that people choose shelter companies carefully and ask sound questions so they don’t find themselves trapped inside a bad shelter.

There are horror stories of doors getting ripped off shelters in the middle of tornadoes as people huddle inside, and FEMA has discovered shelters — particularly older ones —that weren’t built in compliance with standards, he said. The first shelter standards weren’t adopted until about 1999, he said.

Kiesling said there are a couple of questions consumers should always ask including, has the shelter been impact-tested; is there an engineering report for the design; how will it be ventilated; and, if it’s going to be installed above ground, how it is going to be anchored.

If a company can answer the questions confidently and directly, Kiesling said they’re probably legitimate, but “if they give you a blank stare, you might want to look elsewhere.”

Another red flag: Claims that FEMA, Texas Tech or the NSSA has certified a company’s shelter. The organizations do not certify individual shelters, he said.

“If it says it’s NSSA approved or FEMA certified it’s a red flag because that’s an advertising scheme that’s not really validated,” he said.