Phones ringing off the hook for storm shelter firm

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 86 views 

Following the deadly tornado that struck Moore and Oklahoma City and the bumpy weather that rattled nerves across northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith area in recent weeks, storm shelters were on many people's minds.

Nicole Bennett, owner of American Storm Shelters in Sallisaw, Okla., said her company had been flooded with inquiries ever since the first storms hit central Oklahoma.

"I get a lot of calls from customers when any storm hits," she said. "And I do things every year with (KFSM Chief Meteorologist) Garrett Lewis and The Weather Channel."

She said much of the calls are from people experiencing the "scare factor."

"Any time you have something of this magnitude, it makes a major impact because people have that scare factor."

While Bennett said the phone at her business had been ringing off the hook since yesterday, the storm season this year had actually been rather mundane.

"I've never had a year so slow until this happened," she said, adding that it had been the slowest storm season since 1972. reported that only 185 tornadoes were reported in the United States so far this year. reported 741 total tornadoes in 1972, which Bennett said was the slowest storm season until now. Those numbers are in stark contrast to 2011, when the Project reported 1,691 tornadoes nationwide.

For homeowners and business owners looking to install a storm shelter, Bennett said there were many options ranging from a six person storm shelter to shelters that can hold a dozen or more.

Of course, with various sizes comes various prices. Basic, in-ground shelters start at around $3,000 and can hold six people, according to Bennett. For the same type of shelter large enough to house 12 people, she said the cost would increase to around $4,000.

Other types of storm shelter facilities include:
• Hillside storm shelters that can house 12 people and are handicap accessible. Price starts at $5,395;
• Patio tops flush with the ground and can house 12 people start at $5,895; and
• Safe rooms start at $4,295 for a room that can hold six people.

When considering a safe room, Bennett said it was important for homeowners to make sure the room is not exposed to the elements.

"You can build it when you're building the house or you can put them in a garage if you have an existing home," she said. "I don't like to do them freestanding. They're not adequate. It needs to have a structure around it."

Custom-designed safe rooms are also built for large corporations and schools, according to Bennett.

"Those normally go to daycare centers and we have one going to a school," she said.

Due to the large number of customer calls, crews were going to be busy doing installs for the next several months, Bennett said, likely stretching into October or November.

To try and avoid backlogs, she said American Storm Shelters employs both day and night crews to assemble the shelters while also employing three to four installers.

"When (a storm) hits and it's that much, you have to have enough units so you can get it out so people don't have to wait six to eight weeks for a storm shelter. We try to get them in in a fast time frame. That's why we keep a large team – you don't know when the next storm is going to hit."

And while the latest round of severe weather will be good for business, Bennett said that is nothing to take joy in.

"I cried yesterday watching the TV. Never do we want anyone to get hurt. With the schools, you couldn't help but sit there and cry," she said. "We run a business to save lives. We're human beings. We don't get excited about it. You get heartbroke because of the people who didn't get out of the path of the storm. That's really a hard thing to deal with."

The death toll from the tornado that struck Moore, as reported by the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office, is 24, including seven children. Four of the reported deaths occurred in Oklahoma City, according to Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty.

President Barack Obama has declared five counties in Oklahoma disaster areas, including Cleveland and Oklahoma Counties, where yesterday's tornado traveled. In a speech to the nation this morning, Obama said the affected areas "would have all the resources that they need at their disposal."

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Little Rock, released the following statement following Obama's speech in support of ongoing relief efforts in the affected areas: "My heart goes out to the families and communities affected by the severe storms in Oklahoma. Arkansas knows devastation, and we feel for Oklahoma’s enormous loss and suffering. But they’re not alone. With hard work and help from fellow Americans, they’ll rebuild, recover, and stand strong. Like I said when I cast my vote for the Hurricane Sandy Supplemental Disaster Assistance Appropriations bill in January, I’ll continue to support disaster relief for communities in need. Arkansas is here for you, Oklahoma."

The National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., issued a preliminary Enhanced Fujita Scale rating of an EF4 for the storm, meaning wind speed possibly reached 200 miles per hour. After a complete storm survey, the rating was revised to the rare EF5 strength.

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