Tornadoes Spark Increased Interest in Storm Shelters

by Jordan King  on Monday, Jun. 24, 2013 12:00 am  

Destruction is giving way to innovation for Arkansas’ storm shelter manufacturers and retailers, who are reporting increased interest in their products in the aftermath of recent tornadoes.

The devastating tornadoes that swept the Midwest in 2011 coincided with a number of companies developing and testing new products — including repurposed shipping containers and job site-tailored shelters — that are now making their way onto the market and into harm’s way.

Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute, essentially a storm shelter proving ground, has tested and approved six shelters from Arkansas in the past two years. At the NWI debris impact lab, repeated volleys of two-by-fours are shot out of a long, cylindrical “tornado cannon” at speeds of up to 100 mph to simulate the pummeling that shelters must withstand in a storm.

NWI testing and feedback come with a price for participating companies, usually around $4,000 without factoring in shipping costs. Jim Hugg, president of Hugg Mobile Storage Systems and owner of Storm Box LLC in Little Rock, admitted the process wasn’t cheap, but said it was a “no-brainer” for his company.

Hugg flew to Lubbock, Texas, to witness the NWI testing of the Storm Box aboveground shelter — a repurposed commercial shipping container with FEMA-approved doors at either end — in January 2012. Positioned behind a protective shield, Hugg witnessed the “destructive,” “crazy-loud” firing of 15 two-by-fours. The shelter passed the test, and Hugg said Storm Box is now pursuing certification from the National Storm Shelter Association. If the shelter successfully completes the NSSA’s 12-step certification process, Storm Box LLC will be the first Arkansas company to receive membership status.

Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the NSSA, said debris impact testing is “logically the first step” toward membership but that products can pass testing and still be rejected on other grounds.

Hugg said he envisions Storm Box’s 8-by-20 and 8-by-40 shelters, which hold 25 and 50 people respectively, being securely bolted to concrete foundations at businesses, schools and hospitals. In addition to being handicapped-accessible, Hugg said, the shelters’ ease of installation and price could make them an option for cash-strapped rural schools. He said an 8-by-40 shelter and its accompanying foundation would cost about $50,000 and predicted that the shelters will be available to the public by next spring.

Portable Shelter

Some shelter manufacturers are all too familiar with the natural forces they’re up against. When David Turner, owner of T-bar Welding & Fabrication of Quitman, was asked if he’d seen any tornadoes recently, he responded, “Hell, yeah. They’ve been on the ground all around me.” He mentioned two funnel clouds that passed the Oklahoma oil pipeline he has been working on, laughing at how odd it would be if a person who builds storm shelters were killed by a tornado.

T-bar Welding & Fabrication, formerly known as Turner Welding, is another Arkansas business that converts commercial shipping containers into aboveground storm shelters.

Turner has a day job as a pipeline foreman between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and he is trying to convince his employer to rent his National Wind Institute-tested shelters as emergency refuge for the company’s 30-man crews, who predominantly live in trailers near their job sites.

He designed his shelters to be portable because of the nomadic nature of pipeline work, transporting them with gooseneck trailers and forklifts. Once unloaded, the shelters are anchored to the ground using eight double-headed augurs and four cables, a configuration Turner says meets the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s requirements.



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