By BECKY GILLETTE
According to a study published in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science, the tornado belt is shifting, with Mississippi being one of 13 states where tornado activity is increasing. With the state experiencing a spate of more severe weather, installing a storm shelter or safe room is a good investment, said Rick Maradiaga, office/logistics manager with Torshel Storm Shelters and Safe Rooms, Ridgeland.
“Lately the weather has been so erratic,” Maradiaga said. “It doesn’t follow the usual patterns. This is the tornado season. It goes through a cycle. Normally the curve should be going down, but it doesn’t seem to be headed that way. It has been a very unusual year. It surprises me.”
Considering the total cost of a house, and the importance of protecting yourself and your family and possibly neighbors, as well, Maradiaga said a storm shelter or safe room is a good investment.
“The shelters or safe rooms offer security for your family,” Maradiaga said. “From every angle you look at it, it is a win-win situation. Hopefully you don’t have to use it. It is just like buying car insurance. You hate to go through the expense, but it gives you peace of mind. If you have to use it, you hope it is for only a brief period of time.”
Torshel offers different types of units including safe rooms inside. Safe rooms outside on top of the ground are placed on concrete pads at least 12 inches thick and two feet larger than the safe room. In-ground units require digging a pit either outdoors or in a garage.
“You prepare the hole and then put in gravel, concrete and rebar in the bottom,” Maradiaga said. “Then you insert the unit into the pit and fill around the unit with concrete and gravel. Now, in order to make a decision if you are going to get an inground unit, you have to take into account the groundwater levels. If you in an area where water is close to the surface, the inground unit wouldn’t work. But they are appropriate for higher ground.”
If there are elderly or handicapped people in your household, the inground unit is not recommended. A better option might be a safe room in the house.
Maradiaga said they offer a number of different size storm shelters or safe rooms ranging from one that will hold six people to 15.
One advantage of using a company that specializes in storm shelters is that issues like the door being blocked by storm debris have been taken into consideration. Maradiaga said their units come with a five-ton hydraulic jack so you can pop up the lid in case there is something blocking the door.
“And they come with air intake openings,” Maradiaga said. “Also, we throw in battery-operated fans to keep the air circulating so it doesn’t get stuffy. The inground units are prone to become rusty. In order to delay that process, we attach a magnesium anode that delays the rusting process of the unit.”
An important consideration with modular units is making sure the company providing them has had them tested in a laboratory for safety up to an EF5 tornado.
Another company that installs shelters and safe rooms in Mississippi is Ground Zero Storm based in Perry, Okla. Company spokeswoman Debbie Schaefer said her son, Richard Crow, started the business after an EF5 tornado hit nearby and the family had nowhere safe to go.
“In 1999, we were at my grandson’s kindergarten graduation when that big tornado tore through Moore, Okla.,” she said.
“The tornado area is shifting and being more frequent in states that didn’t used to have any. There are also tornadoes at times of the year when there didn’t used to be tornadoes. There was one on Christmas Eve this past year and some in January and February. It doesn’t matter what time of year. Tornadoes are everywhere. When they blow that siren, everyone needs to be aware. They need to start watching.”
Ground Zero Shelters has about 70 employees and installs 30 to 34 shelters per day. Four generations of the family are involved in the business. The company’s slogan is: “Let our family protect your family.”
“We work in 28 states now,” Schaefer said. “We’re getting customers from states we never thought we should be getting like South Carolina, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana and Colorado. We don’t have anything that will take more than a half day to install unless you have solid rock and we have to jackhammer. We have installed more than 91,000 shelters so far.”
Good questions to ask when shopping for a storm shelter or safe room include if the structure has been tested to meet FEMA standards 320 and 361 in the ICC (International Code Council) 500. The size depends on the number of people in your family and if you are going to include neighbors and pets.
Schaefer said many people like the in-ground shelters that can be installed in a pit dug underneath the garage.
“It places it where it is out sight and out of mind under your car until you need,” she said. “Plus, you don’t have to go outside in bad weather to get into it. If you would prefer a safe room inside, it depends on what kind of floor you have. Concrete is preferable and it needs to be at least four inches thick. You usually put it up against a wall, but we anchor it to your concrete with bolts that will withstand 10,000 pounds of sheer pressure. The door opens to the inside so you will never get trapped by a safe room. For in-ground shelters, if there is debris on the top, you can winch it open and still get out. And we give you your GPS coordinates so you can tell emergency responders where you are and that you are in a shelter. If you want to have one outdoors in the yard, you must have the necessary width and height for our semi to get into the space.”
The company feels very rewarded by customers who call after a tornado and report that they were saved. One family put several neighbors and a puppy into their shelter, and the tornado missed them by only two houses. In another case, the safe room was the only thing left standing after a tornado. They provide t-shirts that say: “We survived in a Ground Zero Shelter.”
Since starting the business, they have had a tornado a half mile from her son’s house that took out several barns and one house. A foreman had the roof taken off his new house.
Schaefer said prices for their shelters start at $3,000.
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