Eileen Evans Jankowski
By GWENDOLYN BOUNDS And ANNE MARIE CHAKER WSJ.COM
Many homeowners dream of adding a walk-in closet or home office. Some are installing ones that can withstand winds of up to 250 miles per hour and, in some cases, the weight of a loaded tractor trailer.
Often made of concrete or steel, the spaces are also aboveground storm shelters meant to replace the cellar or below-ground structures long used to ride out hurricanes and tornados.
Sometimes dubbed “safe rooms,” many models are prefabricated units boasting action-movie names such as “StormRoom” and “Iron Eagle II” and lead double lives of offices, tool sheds, or wine cellars. One model even comes with bullet-resistant Kevlar walls.
After a decade of several high-profile and sometimes devastating storms—from the recent Hurricane Earl to Katrina and the 1999 Oklahoma City twisters—more homeowners are investing in the new shelter designs, which typically cost between $4,000 and $15,000, and can be bolted to concrete floors in the garage or even inside the house.
“To me, the ideal location is the master bedroom closet so that even if you are bedridden, you could get that far,” says Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, a nonprofit trade group.
While safe rooms’ main mission is to protect inhabitants from wind and flying debris, homeowners also pack them with valuables such as jewelry, important computer data and documents, or even art and gun collections.
Some fancier models, such as DuPont Co.’s “StormRoom,” which is infused with Kevlar, can be equipped with electricity, wireless reception and keypad entry to function, among other things, as a panic room in case of intruders.
People who have put their shelters to test rattle off weather-survival stories. When a powerful tornado roared through Murfreesboro, Tenn., last year, David Glass ducked into his newly installed “TornadoSafeRoom,” a $4,300 galvanized steel shelter bolted to the concrete floor of his garage. Mr. Glass waited out the storm in the shelter with his brother-in-law who was visiting and Mr. Glass’s two cats, Buggs and Lady Buggs. (His wife was at work.) They emerged to find the home battered but still standing. Five doors down, though, a neighbor’s house was flattened.
Says 39-year-old Mr. Glass of his shelter: “When I bought it, I thought, ‘This is crazy—$4,000 just because I’m a scaredy-cat?’ ” But squirreled away amid first-aid supplies and a battery-powered TV/radio, he says he felt like “the smartest person in the neighborhood.”
While there’s no federal mandate for homes in storm-prone regions to have shelters, according to the website for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which publishes safe-room construction guidelines, “an increasing number of homeowners are building safe rooms” as protection from hurricanes as well as tornadoes. Its shelter guidelines are now the agency’s most requested publication.
In some storm-prone states, such as Mississippi, homeowners can obtain FEMA-funded grants to help pay for qualifying shelters. Virgil and Doris Ott of Yellville, Ark., say they received $1,000 in grant money to install a $7,000 DuPont StormRoom in an office near the garage. They’ve used it half a dozen times in three years, including in 2008 when a tornado spared their tiny town but ruined nearby Gassville.
“It’s a security blanket —nice to know you’ve got it to run to,” says Ms. Ott. “And I love it better than being down in a hole.”
In many homes, storm rooms are cleverly disguised. When Betty and Michael Wilson of Lonoke, Ark., built their dream house two years ago, their contractor constructed a $5,000 custom fireproof storm room that could serve as a home office. The room looks like any other in the home: The floor is tiled, the door is fitted with trim and walls sport a textured concrete surface. The only hint of its true identity: a steel door with four locks.
Richard Gallop recently installed a $5,995 “Iron Eagle II” from stormsaferoom.com beside his Martinsville, Va., carport, painted it white and wrote “ICE” on the side to mimic a commercial ice chest. His wife then planted wisteria vine nearby to help hide the shelter.
Many people grew up with backyard or basement cellars that could provide cover in storms. While in-ground shelters remain popular, over the past decade, more designs have shifted to easily accessible aboveground models that wouldn’t force occupants to stray far during disasters. The devastating May 3, 1999, Oklahoma/Kansas tornado outbreak, which involved 74 tornados, sparked a rush of new shelter makers. Dr. Kiesling of the storm-shelter association estimates there may be 250 such companies today.
Most units are constructed of steel or concrete, have ventilation holes, a multi-bolted door and often built-in seating. Some homeowners outfit units with battery-powered lamps, whistles to alert rescuers if the shelter is covered in rubble, radios, water supplies and a portable toilet.
At least five square feet are typically allotted per person for tornados and 10 feet or more for hurricanes, where occupants may be inside longer, according to Dr. Kiesling. Sizes often range from around 50 square feet to upward of 200 square feet or more on larger models.
In some areas of the U.S., builders now regularly include safe rooms in new home construction. In Arkansas, “When someone wants a custom home, one must-have item is a storm room,” says Rhonda House, owner of Uniquely Southern Homes in Ward, Ark. “Here, everyone has experienced the fear of cramming in a bathtub or interior closet and not having confidence in that holding.”
An aging population may account for some of the new interest for the aboveground shelters. Marty Strough of Storm Solutions LLC in Berryville, Ark., says in the past five years he has put in 100 DuPont StormRoom units. Mr. Strough says wheelchair access is a key selling point, particularly for families that might have underground shelters but a loved one who can’t navigate stairs anymore.
“That leaves everyone unprotected because you won’t say, ‘Good luck, Ma—hope you make it’ and leave her there,” he says.
Quality control is improving. In addition to FEMA’s guidelines, shelter standards for wind and debris impact resistance recently were added to the international building and residential codes. And members of the decade-old National Storm Shelter Association must expose designs to rigorous tests—including 2×4 wood “missiles” fired at 100 mph—and have them inspected by a third-party engineering company.
Some manufacturers devise their own experiments. For instance, Floyd Arnold of TornadoSafeRoom Inc. says he has fired shots at his TornadoSafeRoom unit using different caliber guns resulting in “no penetration.” The website stormsaferoom.com shows a 1989 Lincoln Continental being dropped 40 feet onto its “Iron Eagle II.” “Not a dent or even a scratch,” the site boasts. According to DuPont, the walls of its StormRoom withstood more than 70,000 pounds of pressure, about the average weight of a loaded tractor trailer, during structural tests commonly used by architects.
“It’s kind of a ‘My Daddy can whip your Daddy,’ kind of thing,” says Dr. Kiesling of the storm-shelter association.
Shelters are also gaining traction outside the home. Starting this year, new public schools constructed in Alabama must have a designated safe space or hallway approved by the state’s building commission. And when Dennis House moved into new office space in Cabot, Ark., this June, it was fitted with a 12-foot by 8-foot safe room to house computer servers for the office, which provides marketing and communications services for a unit of Japan’s Topcon Corp. “It protects our folks and our data,” he says.
Not all areas are suitable shelter candidates. FEMA cautions against installations in flood-prone areas, since residents could get trapped under water, though at least one manufacturer tried to address that issue.
Richard Beal who lives in the Florida Keys designed his 800-pound “Storm-Safe” hexagon-shaped aluminum shelter in 2004 to be a “floating” option. So far, though, there have been no takers for the shelter, which sells for $6,900.