Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Safe Room Mandates Remain Rare in Tornado States

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Safe Room Mandates Remain Rare in Tornado States

Article excerpt

MOORE, Okla. --

After living nearly 20 years in their one-story brick home, Sherry and Larry Wells finally won the lottery -- for a state rebate on a home storm shelter, that is. A contractor finished installing the concrete bunker beneath the slab of their garage in early May. About three weeks later, the shelter saved their lives when a tornado that killed 24 people tore through their neighborhood.

Should residential storm shelters be mandatory in the midst of Tornado Alley? Absolutely, says Sherry Wells, "it's the best thing ever."

But not a single state currently requires them in homes. And not many communities do so either, though officials in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore are now considering it.

Despite the life-saving potential of personal storm shelters, the cost remains a deterrent. So, too, does a general resistance to government mandates in politically conservative states such as Oklahoma, where tornadoes are most prevalent. Even the director of an association of storm shelter manufacturers, based in Texas, is opposed to a storm shelter mandate for new homes.

"Any time a governmental entity says 'thou shalt' and tries to take an individual decision into the public domain, it's going to get pushback, and you're also going to raise the cost of things," said Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association and a retired civil engineering professor at Texas Tech University.

The science of storm shelters has advanced considerably since Dorothy failed to make it to the tornado cellar at Aunty Em's Kansas farm in the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz." Some shelters still are dug underground in the backyard. But they are increasingly made with specially fabricated concrete and steel doors to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency specifications. And they aren't necessarily underground. In some cases, closets or bathrooms are being fortified to double as "safe rooms" that can withstand furious winds even if the rest of the house is blown away.

In 2011, Oklahoma announced the SoonerSafe incentive program, offering federally financed rebates of up to $2,000 to residents who install storm shelters. The state uses a lottery-style drawing to select rebate winners from among the thousands of online applications. Sherry Wells said she won this year. She and her husband decided to get the biggest shelter available-- a vault-like box with wooden benches -- at a cost of $4,800. The project was so freshly finished that the Wells hadn't even submitted their rebate forms when the tornado hit on Monday.

"If it wasn't for the hand of God and the cellar, we wouldn't be here," Ms. Wells said as she sorted through the rubble of her home Thursday.

A little over 3,000 residential storm shelters are registered in Moore, a city of about 56,000, said community development director Elizabeth Jones. …

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