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.

Turner said he has outfitted the 32-person shelters with solar panels, lighting, emergency radios, insulation and air-conditioning units, the latter being particularly valuable for pipeline crews because the shelters can also serve as “cooling areas.” He said that in one day on the job, six men had to be treated for heat-related health issues. As a result, his employer is now considering using the shelters to protect employees from the overwhelming Oklahoma heat in addition to the region’s tornadoes.

Turner estimates that it would cost $195 a day to place one of his shelters on a job site. While he remains optimistic about the rental, Turner said, “Everybody talks safety until it comes to paying for it.”

A third Arkansas storm shelter manufacturer has taken a different approach to providing tornado protection in industrial settings. Rather than provide large community-sized shelters for workers, Randy Parsley, owner of Mighty Metal Products LLC of Beebe, encourages his customers to strategically place a number of smaller aboveground shelters throughout a job site.

Mighty Metal’s NWI-tested MightySafe shelters are tailored for the number of workers who will be stationed nearby, a setup Parsley said improves accessibility and safety because employees can take cover faster. He added that workers also spend less time traveling to and from localized shelters, in turn increasing productivity.

Parsley said his company and Tornado Shelter Systems Inc., Mighty Metal’s retailer and distributor in Austin (Lonoke County), have sold 186 shelters since the beginning of 2013. Alisa Smith, sales manager at Tornado Shelter Systems, said a 4-by-6 shelter, which holds six to eight people, costs $5,195 with delivery and installation included.

Windmill Rice Co. LLC, located in Jonesboro, is a MightySafe customer, and Parsley said Georgia-Pacific LLC has recently ordered 23 shelters for its Gurdon sawmill in Clark County. He said sales are “absolutely on the increase” because of recent natural disasters.



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