Safe rooms, shelters, take many forms

MOORE - When builder Brenda Love was growing up in Arkansas, her parents would head for the storm shelter in the back yard anytime a tornado or dangerous storm was in the forecast.

She swore that when she grew up, she would never again climb down into a shelter.

Ironically, on a sunny day when Love was 28, her parents' home was hit by a surprise tornado. It was the only time Love could remember her parents' not going to the storm shelter.

"I couldn't believe it. My dad was standing in the living room when it hit," she said.

Today, as a builder with Elite Quality Homes in Moore, Love has changed her mind about going underground. You'll find her heading down into a shelter when the weather is threatening. Any of her customers who request a storm shelter will get one installed below ground, too.

While Love's preference is to build shelters below ground, other builders prefer building shelters above ground, offering their customers a shelter that can be used as an additional room in the home. It's an alternative Love can understand, even though it's not what she endorses.

"If you had an above-ground safe room at your house, you'd certainly use it if a storm was approaching," Love said. "If you don't have some sort of shelter, you might make a different choice, such as trying to drive somewhere else, which may be more dangerous."

One of the most popular above-ground storm shelters is the DuPont StormRoom, which can be built during the home's construction or later.

Dana Perry, an installation manager with DuPont, recently spoke to home builders at the International Builders Show in Orlando, Fla., at an exhibit with a cut-away model of the StormRoom.

The StormRoom includes plywood sheathing covered with three layers of Kevlar, the same material used in bullet-resistant vests that protect the police and military personnel. A polystyrene core in the room's walls provides energy absorption when flying objects strike the room during a storm, Perry said

"The structural integrity of the room provides the capability of withstanding high loads on the roof," Perry said. "If a car starts to roll over, the panels can withstand 17,000 pounds of stress per panel and the roof can carry a 70,000 pound load."

These materials are held together with a 14-gauge galvanized frame anchored to the slab.

The StormRoom is designed to be built above ground on a concrete slab as a part of new construction or a home renovation.

Rick Mitchell of Ram Construction in Norman, a local distributor of the DuPont StormRoom, has installed about 25 StormRooms in the past two years.

"It's a panelized system that can be erected anyplace in the house," Mitchell said. "I've put them in bedrooms, pantries and even in add-on rooms."

The room is tested by Texas Tech University, which tests several types of shelters in a wind tunnel for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The DuPont product withheld winds equivalent to an F5 tornado, Mitchell said.

"I've had countless people tell me they don't want a below-ground room because of the risk of being trapped beneath the rubble in the aftermath of a tornado," Mitchell said.

Love, a builder with a background in architecture, stands behind underground shelters.

"We don't do anything that's not below the surface," she said. "When an engineer can tell me that they can approve the design of an above-ground storm shelter and put their stamp on it, I would consider it."

Many of the storm shelters Love has included in her homes are installed in the floor of the garage. She said the home of Matt and Alisha Downing in the Oak Ridge addition of Moore is a typical installation.

The Downings had their shelter installed between the second and third car bays in their three-car garage.

"Others are installed in the third car bay," Love said.

A vent pipe is also installed to provide fresh air to the shelter.

"After the May 3, 1999, tornado, the city of Moore started requiring a shelter permit," Love said. "They started a system of registering the shelters within the city limits because so many people were crammed into their shelters for 10 to 12 hours during that tornado. The city now knows where to look for homes with shelters where people may be trapped."

Love said this is the time for homeowners to check their emergency supplies, including batteries for battery-powered lights and radios, to be ready for Oklahoma's spring tornado season.

"We don't run electricity to our storm shelters," Love said. "Cell phones don't always work in shelters, but we recommend having one. Sometimes cordless phones will work in shelters."

In-ground shelters can be installed during construction or after, Love said. They also can be installed in the backyard, with the manufacturer lifting the shelter over the house and putting it in a hole that has been excavated with a small earth-mover.

"The Downings' shelter was put in during the stem wall installation," Love said. "The foundation was poured around the shelter after it was put in the ground. They can also be put in after construction by excavating through the garage floor."

Mitchell said there is no demolition necessary to install a StormRoom.

"We can come in and install one in one day," he said.

He said the StormRoom door sets it apart from other shelters.

"It is a six-panel embossed door. When we turn the lever, it throws six 1-inch steel bolts into the door frame. It's so easy a little child can do it. On some shelters, you have to individually turn each bolt on the door," he said.

Mitchell said the homeowner can add a security door with an electric keypad to make the shelter a safe room for storing valuables.

"People put their important documents in there," he said. "One customer I know uses his room as a gun safe."

DuPont also manufactures a door which is compatible for those with disabilities.

"Someone in a wheelchair can get right in and turn around," Mitchell said.

The room can be made in custom sizes from 4 feet by 6 feet up to 10 feet by 10 feet.

"The room can be finished out on the exterior to match the existing interior of the house," he said. "Some of the rooms are built as half baths. In the new construction phase, you can make the room a laundry room, bathroom or a wine cellar with mahogany panels."

Mitchell said a room that can accommodate four or five people, the most popular size, costs just under $5,000. He said 85 percent of the StormRooms can be installed in one day.

Yet another option for homeowners is to have a room built into their basements which is engineered as a safe room and can be used for virtually any other purpose during good weather.

An example is a safe room/pantry room built into the basement of The ReNewed American Home, a project house that was built for the International Builders Show in Orlando.

The home, which was renovated to include high-efficient systems to reduce energy use, was moved from one lot to another. On its new lot, a basement was added with a concrete bunker added where the safe room/pantry was added.

In addition to holding everyday household items and food supplies, the room is large enough for several people and emergency supplies.

For more information about the DuPont StormRoom, call Ram Construction of Norman at 364-3689, DuPont at (800) 448-9835 or see the company's Web site at .

Love can be reached at 879-1711.

Beverly Bryant: .

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