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The Business And Science Of Storm Shelters


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. A small hole in the ground, that's all it looked like the other day in the photo of the Christian Science Monitor, published in its coverage of a tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, a small hole in the ground surrounded on all sides by the wreckage of totally flattened homes, right up to the very edge of that hole in the ground, which oddly is rectangular in shape in the photo and has a door attached to it, flung open.

The caption explains that actually this hole in the ground is a tornado shelter and that nine people's lives were saved because they were down inside it when the funnel blew past and that the shelter had only been installed two weeks earlier.

It's still unclear how many people were saved by storm shelters in last week's tornado, but there is little doubt that people who sought cover in previously installed underground shelters and safe rooms were protected. And yet most people in high-risk areas don't have them. The reasons for that? Well, we're going to ask.

But meanwhile, we are hearing from storm shelter companies in Oklahoma that their phones have been ringing off the hook. If you are in or even near a tornado alley out there, we want to learn from you. What is involved in deciding if you want to get a shelter of your own? And has one ever saved your life? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join our conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, how Ta-Nehisi Coates reignited his imagination. But first let's go to Moore, Oklahoma. Joining me now by phone from Moore is Larry Tanner. He is the manager of the Debris Impact Test Facility for the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University. Welcome, Larry.

LARRY TANNER: Good afternoon.

DONVAN: Good afternoon. So you are in Moore now physically, and you study shelters professionally. What brings you there in the aftermath? What are you looking for?

TANNER: Well, we usually do lots of various types of forensic investigations of building failures, but this particular investigation is dedicated solely to shelters, shelter performance, shelter types that we find, numbers of shelters, visiting with people that have experienced the tornado and were in shelters and some that weren't in shelters, and you know, to quantify, you know, how, you know, people are doing nowadays with the advent of a whole lot of shelter opportunities from various manufacturers.

DONVAN: Are you - Larry, are you finding in this preliminary sense, are you finding any patterns? In other words most of the shelters, did they hold, did they work and serve their function?

TANNER: Well, we did not fail - did not find any failed shelters at all. (Technical difficulties)

DONVAN: Larry, I just want to stop you because your phone is breaking up a little bit, and you may be standing in a windy place or a place with a low signal, or maybe the phone just needs to be held a little closer to your lips when you speak. I'm not sure. I just wanted to see if you could do a little bit of a shift in that.

And while you're repositioning a little bit, we have asked our listeners to share their stories about making decisions about shelters, and I'll go to one of them, and you can listen in while you're repositioning, and then I'll come back to you. Thanks a lot.

All right, I want to go to Graham, who is in Yukon, Oklahoma. Hi Graham, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. So what's your story with - and first of all your exposure to tornadoes, and what's your decision been about getting yourself a shelter?

GRAHAM: Yeah, we've lived in Oklahoma City about seven years, and we recently purchased a new home in Yukon, and we decided when we moved out there we wanted to pay to have a tornado shelter installed.

DONVAN: So what does it cost? I think that's sort of a bottom line on this whole conversation.

GRAHAM: Yeah, it cost us $3,200, and it's pretty small. It's a six-person, and they installed it in our garage.

DONVAN: So does that mean - and again I'm talking as somebody who's never seen one of these, and maybe a lot of our listeners haven't - does that mean it stands on the floor of your garage, or is it sunk into your garage?

GRAHAM: No, it's below ground. They just saw a four-feet-by-eight-feet hole in the garage and drop a steel shelter in and put concrete around it.

DONVAN: We had heard earlier that the phones are ringing off the hooks among people who install these shelters since Moore happened. You put yours in before Moore happened?


DONVAN: What was the prompt for you, since it wasn't that recent disaster?

GRAHAM: Well, we just purchased the home in February, and we had the storm shelter company install it the day after we closed because we wanted to make sure to get it in. And it only took about four hours for them to install it.

DONVAN: That's interesting, so it's not a gigantic inconvenience to you structurally to have it put in.

GRAHAM: No, no, the house is all finished. It just takes about four hours, and it's ready to use.

DONVAN: All right, Graham, thanks very much for your call from Yukon, Oklahoma. And I want to see if we can go back to Larry Tanner, who is the manager of the Debris Impact Test Facility, who studies these things. Larry, are you still with us? All right, it sounds like Larry's going to be relocating for the time being. Let's bring in Kristen(ph), who is in Oklahoma City. Kristen, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. What's your story in regard to shelters?

KRISTEN: Hi, I was - I live in Oklahoma City, and I was recently in the tornado. My parents live about two miles from where the tornado hit, and I was at school. I teach at a community college. And they were with my two-year-old daughter in the hall and with no storm shelter. And I was watching it on television and it was just absolutely harrowing. It was coming straight for our house.

DONVAN: So you're in it, and you're watching it come at you.

KRISTEN: Yes, I was in Midwest City, and it was very close to Midwest City also.

So it was - there were several circulations at the time. But yeah, it was - I think it was the scariest thing I've experienced thus far as a parent. And so after that my mom just said I can't go through this again, I just - we have to get a storm shelter. So...

DONVAN: And Kristen, why wasn't there one before? And I'm not asking that in a critical way. I'm asking that as, you know, I'm sitting in Washington, D.C., and then I see what happens and a kind of thought crosses your mind, well, why doesn't everybody have one already? There's got to be reasons. What are the reasons for that?

KRISTEN: Well, there are a couple of reasons. One of the first reasons is that rarely homes are built with basements in Oklahoma City. So - and they're - I think it has to do with the water level. So there's - it's hard to get underground. And I think that we're sort of immune to it, in a way. There are tornado watches, tornado warnings all the time, and I think until the 1999 tornado, I mean we just sort of ignored it a lot of times because it just happens so often.

But that tornado really, I think, showed what kind of damage could be done, and when they were talking about it, they kept comparing it to the '99 tornado, and I knew then that it was really, really bad, so...

DONVAN: All right, Kristen, thanks very much for sharing your story with us. Thanks for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

I want to bring in Bill Stegman. Bill, we mentioned that companies that install these shelters are getting a lot of calls right now, and Bill Stegman owns a company called American Tornado Master. He's out of Dallas, Texas. Bill, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION, and thanks for joining us from Dallas.

BILL STEGMAN: Hello, sir, how are you today?

DONVAN: I'm well, thank you. It would really help us if you can tell us - picture, draw a picture for me of what your product is. How does a shelter go from your floor, your storage area to somebody's home?

STEGMAN: Well, sir, we have several different types. We have above-ground and below-ground shelters. We also have them built out of different construction types, from concrete to steel. And just depending on where a person lives at, that kind of determines what equipment we can and cannot use and install the various shelters that we have.

And we like to try to go out and meet with the client, survey the land and then talk with them and see what their needs are and then try to fulfill that for them.

DONVAN: So I heard a price tag of $3,200, and my sense was that that person was talking about a shelter that would hold a family of four or five people. What do you think that they're talking about? Is that obviously something prefabricated, he had it sunk in his garage? Is it a fiberglass product normally or...

STEGMAN: It would probably be a steel - they make a steel, and they do make steel fiberglass shelters also. That would - but that - for that price range that would probably be a steel in-ground storm shelter up in the Oklahoma area.

DONVAN: You know, I know that everybody in your field, everybody in your business is getting a lot of business right now, and I know that that happens after tragedy, and I don't want to ask you, you know, whether this is good for business, because obviously it is for painful reasons.

I do want to ask you a different question. Why do people hold off, do you think, on making this investment?

STEGMAN: I just think it's one of those items, sir, that is out of sight, out of mind, and then one day when day when they see the devastation and destruction, the injuries and the death, then people just wake up and decide, you know, we really need to invest in one and have it done. It's - but it's just one of those products that, you know, if it isn't on the news, it's just out - you know, they put it on the back burner.

We've had several clients call us that have told us in the last 10 days that they've been paying to call us for the last three to six months, and now they're doing it. We've had clients that we've seen two years ago call us back.

DONVAN: Are the shelters themselves always safe? I mean I'm imagining people think in terms - I'm going to go down there for 15 minutes, maybe an hour, until everything blows over. But if you're in a shelter and debris ends up being on top of you, are you safe if you're trapped inside a shelter?

STEGMAN: Well, most all the storm shelters, especially if they've been approved and tested at Texas Tech Wind Engineering, they're required to have X amount of square inch of ventilation per the size of the shelter. And unless it's just really covered up, and it would have to be, you know, compounded covered up, such as dirt impact on top, you're going to have enough ventilation in there. Any good storm shelter company is going to really put more ventilation than is the actual requirement on there.

But I would - you know, we have in-ground steel and in-ground concrete both, but our in-ground concrete is built in such a way where it's half above-ground and half below-ground. And we cover over the top of it, you know, with backfilled dirt, just sort of a mound over the top. But our door is on a 45-degree angle. You know, so in the event that there is debris on top of it, you would use a floor jack to - and a couple braces, you know, to jack the door up to try to let air inflow in and the same thing for the in-ground steel shelters. You can use a come-along...

DONVAN: Bill, can I ask you to hold on for just a second because we need to take a break? And I'm going to come back to you, and Larry Tanner is joining us again. We're talking about the storm shelter need and the business and what your decision is. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan. The tornadoes that touched down in Moore, Oklahoma, last week killed more than two dozen people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. Today Sooners around the states are warily once again eyeing the weather reports because meteorologists are tracking some storms that could develop later today.

They're predicted to deliver winds up to 80 miles an hour and hail the size of tennis balls. There is in the forecast mention of another possible tornado, and if it materializes, it could send residents right back down into their storm shelters. And that's what we're talking about, storm shelters. If you have thought about having one installed at your home or built, tell us what went into your decision.

And if you've ever taken shelter in one, we want to hear your story. What's it like to be in there feeling safe when the danger is outside? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're going to bring back into the conversation Larry Tanner. He is the manager of the Debris Impact Test Facility at the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University. Larry, thanks for your patience. You were with us earlier, and we had a little bit of communication problem.

But you were talking about the - really the requirements of a shelter, what it needs to stand up to, and that's what you test. I'm also interested to hear from you about really the challenges of the terrain itself and the soil itself, because we understand that in Moore, Oklahoma, the soil is not terribly conducive to placing a shelter underground.

And I want to understand what that's about. Why is that?

TANNER: Well, you can have rocky soils, you can have expansion soils, you can have a high water table, all of which pretty well rule out any kind of underground excavation for a shelter. So that leaves you with the, you know, the aboveground safe room concept. And we, you know, we've seen a number of those this investigation, and folks in those shelters were quite safe, and the shelter performed admirable, even though their houses didn't.

DONVAN: So it sounds as though this is not - this is not a technological challenge, that the manufacturers and the people who install, like Bill Stegman, they're - they have the product that's needed, it hits the standards.

TANNER: Yes, the thing is, the thing is that these shelters need to be tested because first of all the door is the most vulnerable, and, you know, that's - you open that door in the middle of a storm or get it knocked open by flying debris, then the occupant extremely danger. We also test doors for below-ground shelters because we see, we see doors that are blown off of below-ground shelters.

We see below-ground shelters that only have one lock, and the FEMA and ICC 500 standard requires a minimum of two locks at the conclusion of the testing but recommends the use of three locks for all shelter doors. That way you've got some redundancy if you lose one.

DONVAN: All right, I'd like to go back to some of our callers, and they - we have a lot of people, actually, lined up who want to share stories, and maybe we'll have some points that, Larry, you can respond to, and Bill Stegman, who is the owner of American Tornado Master who's joining us from Dallas, Texas. Let's bring in Elena(ph) from Norman, Oklahoma. Hi Elena, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ELENA: Hi, thank you so much for taking my call.


ELENA: I wanted to, you know, mention that my family and I are all from Oklahoma, I grew up here. My family lives in Southern Oklahoma, and my family and I, it's me and my husband and our young son who is about 18 months old. We have all lived in Oklahoma our entire lives, and I've never lived in a home that had a shelter.

And I think the point should be made that for a lot of families who are poor and in these more rural areas, you know, $3,000 is a lot of money, and that's one of the cheapest shelters, and those are the ones that go usually in the garage and are kind of frightening because they're sort of right by your house, so the possibility of having debris trap you in the shelter is very, very likely.

But the cost, you know, $3,000 is really something that's - you know, it's not possible, it's prohibitive for a lot of families who have incomes that are, you know, $24,000 a year or less. So, you know, that's one point, but then another thing that I also wanted to mention is my family right now, we live in a rental home.

And it doesn't have shelter. In fact, I know a lot of homes that are rented that don't have shelters, and the landlords are not really very perceptive because of the cost of installing the shelter. They're not particularly perceptive to putting one in. But it puts a lot of families who don't own their homes, you know, in danger. Public - a lot of public facilities here in Oklahoma also don't have underground shelters.

I work for the University of Oklahoma, and though we have some buildings that have underground areas, basement-type, you know, underground areas, there's not an underground shelter on campus. My son's daycare doesn't; a lot of the schools don't. So this is - I mean, this is really a conversation that needs to be had, so I really appreciate that you're focusing on it today.

DONVAN: Well Elena, as a matter of fact since you feel this is a conversation that should be had, let me take it a little bit in that direction back to Larry Tanner.

ELENA: Absolutely.

DONVAN: And thanks for your call, thanks for joining us, Elena.

ELENA: Thank you very much.

DONVAN: Back to Larry Tanner, I don't want to get you into the politics of this, so I'm not going to ask your opinion, I just want to sort of ask you what the facts are. In terms of after a disaster like this, is there often a discussion? Does the discussion take place about whether building codes and construction regulation should require, require shelters be included in new construction?

I know that the mayor of Moore, Mayor Glenn Lewis, said he's going to seek a mandate that all new homes in Moore would have to have underground storm shelters, and we have an estimate that that'll add $4,000 to the price. Does this conversation tend to come and go with the level of disaster?

TANNER: Well yes, it does, you know, out of sight, out of mind does take place. It will occur probably six months from this disaster. But in answer to your caller, the 2015 International Building Code will require shelters in schools and in public buildings. That will be a requirement, you know, throughout, you know, the tornado regions.

Now municipalities can have the, you know, the authority to keep that verbiage in the codes or to modify that verbiage in the codes. So that's, you know, not only states' rights, but it's also city rights and taxpayer rights. But certainly, you know, these public places and schools, you know, need to have shelters because, you know, our children are the future of our families and our country.

DONVAN: Bill Stegman, again you're south, you're in Dallas, Texas, but also a tornado-prone area, and you make your living installing shelters. And Larry Tanner was just talking about what I guess we would call a communal shelter, a shelter large enough to service a school or maybe a nursing home or something like that. And I'm curious to know: Is that the trend? Is there a trend more towards building shelters for full neighborhoods or for large groups of people as opposed to the house-by-house-by-house shelter?

STEGMAN: I'm aware of a few towns here in Texas that have built community shelters, more out in the rural area. I haven't personally received very many calls from municipalities or cities requesting any info on that. We have recently built one for a school district where they were going to put in their computer systems.

So in the event, you know, that something's going to happen today, I guess they wouldn't be totally dysfunctional there. But I do believe that that is going to be the trend, more so coming down the line from here.

DONVAN: And is it a different technological challenge to build a large challenge? Does it just need, you know, a great deal more support and structure?

STEGMAN: Yes, sir, it is a different type with more structure but nothing that can't be built. I mean, they're being built now. So, you know, the challenges just have to be met.

DONVAN: All right, we are getting some emails, as well as listener calls, and I want to read one from Stephanie(ph), who is in Oklahoma City. She says: I was skeptical when my mother decided to have an in-ground shelter installed last spring. As a 35-year resident of Oklahoma City, she had an increasing fear that the storms and tornadoes were becoming more violent and more frequent. After seeking shelter in our subterranean structure three times last week, I am now a believer. I find that interesting because her mother is older and, you know, on this coast, on the East Coast, when we have people who live down by the beaches and hurricanes come in, it's often the older people who won't - who don't see the threat. And here, Stephanie's mom, who is older, is beginning to become more concerned about the threat.

And Jane Lawton - I'm sorry. Jane of Lawton, Oklahoma, she says: Lawton is 90 miles from Oklahoma City. We installed a shelter two years ago, and a few weeks ago, when circulatory winds passed right over our house, they went downstairs. We took refuge, she says. No damage, but we felt safe. A shelter company from Oklahoma City came at 7:30 one morning, and they were finished with the installation by 10:30 - three hours. Is the - three hours, Bill Stegman, is that all can it take sometimes?

STEGMAN: Sometimes - pardon me. Sometimes it can, depending on what type of soil conditions and foundation conditions you're working with. Sometimes, it can take 10 hours to do that very same one here in Dallas, Texas, and sometimes two days. But we have a large rock problem here. And then also, in our area here, most of the homes are built with post-tension cabling. So - but up in Oklahoma, I know some folks up there, and that's - their average is, on a real well-trained crew, is three to five hours.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Joe from Midwest City, Oklahoma. Hi, Joe. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOE: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi, Joe. You're on the air.

JOE: Thank you.

DONVAN: So tell us, do you have a storm shelter?

JOE: I do have a storm shelter. We live in a house in Midwest City. It was built in 1952. The shelter was originally constructed on the patio. We figured it was also intended as a bomb shelter. It's a nice concrete shelter.

DONVAN: Oh, you mean as a sort of Cold War bomb shelter...

JOE: Exactly, exactly.

DONVAN: ...against nuclear attack. Uh-huh.

JOE: And it's now in the living room, since I built onto the house in 1970. And I stand on the steps and watch the radar right up until the time I have to close the lid.

DONVAN: So you have a hatch in your living room floor then, really.

JOE: I do. I do. Right next to the dining room table, up against the wall.

DONVAN: So somebody - an earlier caller mentioned a concern about - she said I wouldn't want it in the garage, because the house would fall down on top it if we were to hit - be hit directly. You have yours right...

JOE: (Unintelligible)

DONVAN: ...in the living room. What about - you have that concern?

JOE: We do have that concern. We are registered with the Midwest City Fire Department GPS. They know we have a shelter, and they know we're going to be in there. My wife has a whistle. We have cell phones and a six-foot pry-bar.

DONVAN: All right. Joe, thanks very much for sharing your story. And I want to go to Pam in Saint Louis. Hi, Pam. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. Actually, Pam, it's my mistake. I'm having a little difficulty with the buttons here, but you should be on TALK OF THE NATION now. Hi, Pam. Are you on the air?

PAM: I am.


PAM: I know that cost is one of the biggest obstacles. And as people rebuild in Oklahoma, I just want them to know that FHA loans include the ability to finance a storm shelter. So when they go to refinance or rebuild, they can add that storm shelter on. And if they're using an FHA loan, they can finance it that way.

DONVAN: So we're talking about $4,000, maybe, it sounds like a rough ballpark. And you spread that out over 25 years, you maybe would be paying 40 or 50 bucks a month, something like that for it, to put it in there.

PAM: I don't know that it comes out to that much, but it's certainly an option for people that don't have the cash right up front.

DONVAN: Right. All right. A really good tip. If it's accurate - and I'm assuming that you're right - it's a really good tip. I'm interested in something, Larry Tanner, about, you know, in terms of the cost-benefit analysis, you know, even here in Washington, especially through the summer, we will get tornado watches and tornado warnings. And in the counties around Washington, tornadoes tend to touch down every summer somewhere around Maryland or Virginia, the states that surround Washington, D.C. But there's no great conversation here about installing shelters.

What - and I think that's because of the perception that the risk is relatively low. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But where do you draw the line on deciding whether you're at risk for this?

TANNER: Well, virtually any place east of the Rocky Mountains is susceptible to tornadoes. And so, you know, that's why you see them not only in Tornado Alley, but you see them in, you know, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois. I've researched a bunch in Ohio. Just in the last couple of years, we've had storms, pretty significant storms in Pennsylvania and Maryland and North Carolina. So, you know, it's not uncommon, and it's not really uncommon in New England. But the severity of the storms are less.

DONVAN: Right. Larry, let me just interrupt for a moment to tell our stations that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And I want to have Terrence(ph) from Tulsa join us. Hi, Terrence. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TERRENCE: Hi. Yeah. I'm in Tulsa. And I appreciate the opportunity to be on, because I'm going to bring something to the table that you guys aren't necessarily talking about but is extremely beneficial, which is a domed-shape structure for living, or even for a storm shelter. The benefit of that kind of a structure where it's perfectly circular are - they're wide-ranging, but specifically for what we're discussing with the tornadoes, there's a woman actually in Moore or the Oklahoma City area - I can't remember which - that I read an article about that she has this - she went and built a domed-shape building after the '99 storm. So you may want to try to look out for that and see if you can find this lady, because she could say - she could give you more specific information that I can't. (Unintelligible)

DONVAN: So you're saying - but, Terrence, you're saying that the dome shape of the home is aerodynamically less vulnerable to damage...

TERRENCE: Yeah. Right. Absolutely.

DONVAN: ...no corners - I'm assuming no corners and harder things for it to catch on to.

TERRENCE: Her home was totally fine in this, you know, in this experience. So if you could look for her, I'm sure you would be able to get more specific information from her. But, yes, you're absolutely accurate. Yes.

DONVAN: Terrence, thank you. You take us out of this conversation with something to look for and possibly with the future to look ahead to. Thanks, Terrence in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I also want to thank...

TERRENCE: All right.

DONVAN: ...Larry Tanner. He is the manager of the Debris Impact Test Facility for the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University, who joined us by phone from Moore, where he is investigating the situation, and also Bill Stegman. He is the owner of American Tornado Master in Dallas, Texas, who joined us by phone from his office in Dallas.

After a short break, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates joins us to make the case for getting lost. Stay with us. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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