Jim Bell is the director of operations for the National Storm Shelter Association, an advocacy organization that works with government agencies and the construction and engineering industries to expand the use of storm shelters. It also helps create design standards for shelters as well as educational outreach.
After the March 31 tornado outbreak in Arkansas, including an EF-3 twister that destroyed at least 2,000 structures in Little Rock, homeowners and businesses are assessing whether it’s necessary to invest in a tornado shelter. Bell spoke with Arkansas Business about tornado shelters and the ongoing debate about whether they should be required in new construction projects.
Bell’s answers were edited and condensed for clarity.
Are tornadoes increasing in frequency and strength?
There is not a substantial increase in the number of tornadoes. I think we are seeing larger tornadoes. There was an outbreak in 2011 in Alabama where there may have been four F-5 tornadoes on the ground at the same time. I think the South is getting a lot more tornadoes than before. Usually, it was tornado alley through Oklahoma, Kansas and north Texas. That is where you found all of the large tornadoes. There are more states you would not even think about that have been getting tornadoes lately.
Why aren’t tornado shelters required in regions susceptible to being hit?
Cost is what it comes down to. There are ways to get around the cost that not everyone knows about and not everyone does, so it’s education. It’s expensive to build a shelter that meets codes. There are no shortcuts. Generally, home builders associations are always against things that make houses cost more. Because tornadoes are so random, there is a sense that shelters are not needed. Cost is the biggest nemesis of protection. There are ways to defer the cost of putting in shelters, utilizing mitigation grants by some government organizations, and educating the marketplace for community and residential shelters.
What advice do you have for homeowners who are considering purchasing a tornado shelter?
I call it the Wild West out there because there are probably more companies selling shelters that have not gone through testing than there are that really have [been tested]. It is buyer beware when you buy a shelter. I’ve been getting two or three calls a day from people asking what kind of shelter to buy? How do you know if it’s good? People are starting to understand that and request that. Find out if and when the shelter was tested. Also, where it was tested. Second, does it have engineering on how the shelter is anchored to a concrete slab and if they will check the homeowners’ concrete floor to make sure it is thick enough to hold the shelter during a storm. A residential shelter can be purchased for $3,000. One that is going to protect you is probably $6 - $7,000. That is why people buy ones that have not been tested and such because they are cheaper. Testing is expensive.
What advice do you have for businesses that are considering a shelter?
Out West, there are earthquake codes where all new buildings are constructed to withstand an earthquake, which is even more rare than a tornado. But it could be catastrophic if an earthquake hits a major metropolitan area. The people who I talk to who are putting tornado shelters in just want peace of mind. It used to be the old fairy tale that a tornado never hits the same place twice. An EF-5 almost took the exact same path through Moore, Oklahoma. In 13 years, Moore had three EF-5 tornadoes go through. If businesses can’t afford to put a shelter in, they can create a best available refuge area, an existing room where people could go, some place where people could get away from the high winds. All the time I go into businesses, and they have [a room with] hollow wood doors and drywall, and they put a tornado shelter sign on there. If you are telling people it’s a tornado shelter, and it’s not a tornado shelter and someone gets hurt, you could be held responsible for it.
Do you think the insurance industry has a role to play in requiring more tornado shelters?
No, they are worried about the cost of rebuilding.
What is a safe room?
A safe room is something that meets FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] guidelines or ICC [International Code Council] 500 guidelines, which is what is in the building codes that all shelters should meet. The impact testing and the engineering is required in that code. If they do not meet the ICC 500 standards, it should not be called a tornado shelter. It would have to be called a best available refuge area, meaning they are not protecting you, it’s just the best place to be during a tornado, like a basement or an interior room with no windows. I have done a lot of work in Arkansas training architects. If a client wants a tornado shelter, I would think they would put one in a building that meets code. You can meet code by using a certain thickness of concrete, but it’s the penetration, it’s the doors, it’s the windows that are the most vulnerable. When they close they have to be strong enough to withstand the impacts [of debris].
What are some creative solutions you’ve come across for shelters?
There is a gentleman who, after the  Kentucky tornadoes, is trying to put together a program where a neighborhood can put in a smaller shelter where maybe 10 families will come together and divide the cost. Several states, like Alabama, have a rebate program if you put a shelter in. Birmingham, Alabama, has had a lot of tornadoes lately. They put in these big dome shelters in neighborhoods that will hold 500 or 600 people. They have done a good job. There are a lot of ideas you can come up with to help protect the general public from these storms. There is also money that FEMA has available.
What are other obstacles to more widespread use of tornado shelters?
The biggest issue we are fighting right now is inspections. No one is really out trying to protect the general public. The commercial buildings, the schools, they get inspected. That is not an issue. It’s the people who are trying to buy a safe room for a family. How do they know if it is really going to protect them? Building officials have to be brought into this, to take ownership of this.