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Gimme shelter


May's deadly tornadoes have prompted a surge of interest in storm shelters.

Jerry Bohnen June 11th, 2013

In the wake of last month’s EF5 twisters, tornado shelter companies throughout the metro have been swamped with would-be customers ready to buy some peace of mind.

Huong Nguyen and Oanh Nguyen shop for shelters at Smart Shelters.
Credit: Shannon Cornman

People packed the showrooms only days after the May 31 tornado — the widest recorded in U.S. history — ripped through El Reno, eager to learn about underground shelters or above-ground safe rooms. Many had one key concern: How soon could it be installed in their home?

The answer, no doubt, startled them.

Some would have to wait until perhaps October. One shelter contractor said he would be busy until September of 2014. You read that right: 2014.

Robin Hood, director of strategic marking for Smart Shelters, said the phones have been ringing constantly since the May 20 tornado that devastated swaths of Moore, Newcastle and south Oklahoma City.

“It was incredible. We thought it would slow, but it hasn’t,” he said.

Each year, Smart Shelters manufactures and installs about 3,000 shelters, which include above-ground safe rooms and underground shelters usually placed beneath garage floors.

“In the last 10 days, we’ve probably sold about 1,500 shelters,” said Hood.

To put that in perspective, Smart Shelter sold about 200 the week after a tornado struck Piedmont in May of 2011. The company sells four sizes, with prices ranging from $2,995 to $4,895.

But people who put down a $300 deposit today will have to wait until February 2014 to see it installed.


‘Scared out of their wits’
A crush of customers has also been the case for Armor Vault, according to the company’s owner, Mark Webb. “They slammed us the day after the May 20 tornado, and it’s been crazy ever since,” he said.

Armor manufactures several sizes of above-ground shelters. The vaults, all-steel units, are typically installed in garages.

“We tie our safe rooms down to a concrete slab using 14 anchor bolts tested to withstand 15,000 pounds of pressure,” said Webb, whose father founded the business in 1966. “It’s way, way overkill, but when it comes to saving lives, it can’t be overdone.”

He said the shelters were tested by Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute, while the safe rooms reportedly can withstand the force of an EF5 tornado.

When the May 31 tornado hit the metro, Webb and more than a dozen employees jammed into one of the shelters and waited for the storm to pass.

“People are in a panic mode. They’re scared out of their wits,” he added.

At the F5 Storm Shelters showroom, customers have been told that shelters can be purchased but installation would have to wait until October.

“We can’t get a break, and we’ve had nonstop calls since the Moore tornado. It’s been in waves,” said Blake Lee, a sales representative.

Some of the F5 shelters are closets made of 10-gauge steel and are connected to garage floors using 20 anchor bolts.

The smallest of the underground shelters carry a price of $2,799 fully installed, while a jumbo shelter is $4,000. F5 Storm Shelters can install two to three shelters a day.


Interstate demand
Andrew Zagorski Jr. of Oz SafeRooms said the recent tornadoes have been a “wake-up call” for area residents.

Edward Riggs stands on his grandmother's shelter
following the May 20 storm.
Credit: Shannon Cornman

“We are very overwhelmed,” he said, adding that about 50 people — including dozens of passersby — crammed into the shelters of the Del City factory during the May 31 storms. Oz SafeRooms, which Zagorski’s father began in 1998, builds various sizes of above-ground shelters. The smallest is 25 square feet and sells for $8,000. So many customers have inundated the company, Zagorski said, he has contracts signed up through September of next year.

“People are still signing up. It’s amazing. And now we’re getting calls from Texas, Kansas and Missouri.”

The demand is so great that Zagorski said he has partnered with an international law firm and plans to take the company public.

Consumer interest in tornado shelters apparently was swelling even before the May 19-20 tornadoes that swept through Central Oklahoma, as evidenced by the number of shelter permits issued by Oklahoma City officials. In 2012, the city had recorded nearly 2,500 permits, according to David Adcock, the city’s development center manager.

He cited figures of 1,158 permits issued from March to June 1 of this year. Since May 20, nearly 400 shelter permits have been issued.

Meanwhile, tornado-related insurance claims filed by Oklahomans since May 19 have risen to well more than 60,000. They represent insured losses of nearly $470 million.

As of last week, the state insurance commissioner’s office said that includes 29,072 homeowners’ claims, 28,056 auto claims and 1,849 commercial property claims.


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