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May 9, 2014

Twisters rouse interest in shelters, safe rooms

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OKLAHOMA CITY —

“People are thinking about it more. People who have lived in Oklahoma all their lives sometimes may not have ever thought that they needed a storm shelter until last year,” she said.

Oklahoma is not the only state where families are confronting their twister fears.

After a half-mile-wide tornado hit the Little Rock suburb of Vilonia last month, officials said the death toll of 15 could have been worse if residents had not piled into underground shelters and fortified safe rooms.

Alisa Smith, sales manager for Austin, Arkansas-based Tornado Shelters Systems, said the company is working around the clock to keep up with demand. Sales have doubled since last year, to about 300 shelters. New customers have to wait six to eight weeks for installation, she said.

“I think this tornado scared a lot of mothers,” she said. “There were two little boys lost in the Vilonia storm, so I think a lot of mothers are saying, ‘Forget those granite counter tops or sunroom, let’s put in a shelter.”’

It’s not unusual for an episode of severe weather to send demand soaring, said Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association.

Just as parts of the central U.S. are seeing an increase now, the South experienced a similar trend in 2011, after twisters killed more than 300, he said.

But the shelters and safe rooms don’t come cheap. Pricing is based on a variety of factors, including size, location within the home and the type of door used. The priciest models can cost as much as $14,000. Smaller ones can be had for a few thousand dollars.

Some people turn to a lottery-style federal program that provides matching money for residential shelters. The government offers rebates of up to $2,000 per home. About 10,000 people or families apply annually for one of about 500 rebates, said Keli Cain, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. Other cities and towns may offer their own rebate programs.

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