Seeing images of the almost unimaginable destruction from the tornado in Moore, Okla., has prompted a lot of people to make inquiries into building a storm shelter in their home. While there isn’t currently any money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help pay for storm shelters in Mississippi, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Robert Latham advises state residents to consider investing in protection.
“We encourage citizens to install a storm shelter because nothing is more important than your family,” Latham said. “Unfortunately, FEMA can only provide funding for safe rooms after a disaster. Obviously, people would like to be able to have funding available to help them. But if you think it is important enough to have one, you shouldn’t let the fact there are not federal funds available stop you. Ultimately, what you want to do is provide a safe and secure place for your family.”
If building a new home, Latham encourages people to include a safe room either underground or by reinforcing one room in the house like a bathroom. For existing homes, a good option is a steel unit that either buried in the ground or freestanding.
Latham recommends putting it in the garage or, if outside, somewhere close to the house. Some people might place the underground safe room 30 to 50 yards form the house.
“If severe weather is threatening and you have to go that far, you may get killed going there,” Latham said. “Don’t use it for storage so it is full when you need it. Also register the location of your safe room with local emergency officials so they know where to look for you after a disaster.”
With the MEMA program A Safe Place to Go, FEMA paid for 75 percent of the cost of installing safe rooms in counties that had experienced a disaster. About 6,900 safe rooms across the state have been installed under that program.
“We have been able to validate that since 2001, that program has saved lives,” Latham said. “We’ve also undertaken several other initiatives with safe rooms including building safe rooms that are part of or near schools, and safe rooms for first responders. We have also built a total of 72 FEMA shelters across the state that have a total capacity of 52,000 people.
High water tables or shifting soils can make the in ground type of tornado shelter impractical. David Tullos, owner of Tornado Shelters of Jackson, said shifting soils can be a problem in areas where there is red clay.
Tullos considers a safe room a good investment.
“Our smallest safe room, 4 x 6 metal unit, costs $4,999, installed,” Tullos said. “Is your life worth $5,000? If you are buying a house and it is $100,000 for a house without a safe room and $105,000 for one with a safe room, in my opinion you will buy the house with a safe room. It is a cheap investment for a life. Even if you never use it, the peace of mind is worth it, in my opinion.”
Tullos recommends consumers make sure the shelter dealer has been in business more than five years. And be leery of out-of-state contractors who claim you don’t have to pay sales taxes on the purchase.
“If you get caught, you have to pay taxes plus a penalty,” Tullos said. “The state is trying to buckle down on out-of-state sales taxes. If you buy from out-of-state dealers, you have to pay Mississippi sales tax.”
He also recommends getting a written quote because some out-of-state contractors have reportedly billed people an extra $500 to $600 for mileage.
Make sure that the product purchased meets all FEMA guidelines for a F5 tornado. “You don’t want a F3 room, and there are some out there are like that,” Tullos said. “All our rooms exceed the F5 rating.”
Patrick Allen, owner of Storm Ready Shelters, Meridian, said big storms like the one in Oklahoma can spawn a lot of people trying to get into the shelter business to turn a quick profit.
“They aren’t worried about protecting you,” Allen said. “It is just about money. So be careful. Deal with someone who is a member of the Better Business Bureau, who has a reputation and gives you referrals, and who has tested their shelters at Texas Tech University where all the shelters are tested. If they haven’t been tested there, you don’t want it. And a big thing is to make sure it is manufactured by a member of the National Storm Shelter Association. That association sets guidelines and makes sure these things are built in the proper way to get the best protection.”
Allen said it has been extremely busy since the tornado.
“It definitely opened people’s eyes,” Allen said. “The sad thing is it typically takes a big, deadly tornado for people to buy. Then the phone starts ringing. For the same amount of money people spend on a riding lawnmower or four wheelers, this is something that will protect you and your family.”
Allen said they have an above ground all steel safe room that has been tested at over 700 mile per hour winds. The rooms can be installed in a garage, patio or porch.
“They are a nice finished product,” he said. “They are not an eyesore. We can custom paint them if needed. Our sizes range from 4 x 4 feet to 6 x 12 feet. An average is a 5 x 8. The average price is $7,600. They start out less and a larger one is more. People find other uses for them as well. With special theft proof locks, they can be used for safes used to store firearms, jewelry or any kind of collectibles.”
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