Brett West understands the adage, “the calm before the storm.”
As the president of U.S. Storm Shelters LLC in Decatur, his business was virtually dead until the recent rash of killer tornadoes in North Texas and Oklahoma.
“We’ve been in business for eight years, and from Jan. 1 through April, this was our slowest year since we started in July 2005. It was very slow. We were running a skeleton crew because there was no demand. We had barely any inventory. It’s really fickle. It goes with the weather.”
“But when the Hood County tornadoes hit [on May 15] business began to pick up. Then when Edmond, Okla., hit, it got even more crazy. Then Moore hit, and it was just off the charts.
“If a customer called me right now, all I could do is put them on a waiting list and tell them it would probably be until November or December before we could get to it … I go to sleep dreaming of building storm shelters when we’re busy like this.”
The company, located a short drive north of Farm Road 2264, builds all the shelters on site. Concrete sludge, gray as a stormy sky, pours into a cast. Four workers ensure it pours in evenly around a strong steel frame. A lot of concrete is poured into the cast, meaning a single shelter can weigh 12,000 pounds.
“We use the same type of formula used in a concrete dam,” West said. “We’re the only company that uses cement that is water sealing. Our shelters are self-healing. If a crack occurs and gets water in it, it activates a chemical in the concrete that will seal the crack. It will continue to activate for at least 40 years.”
The small team of employees works tirelessly during this busy season. They are able to produce up to 18 shelters per week.
“Our guys really enjoy the work they are doing because they know it is saving lives,” West said. “Our objective is to help people be safe.”
And they have.
“We have distributors across the country, in Iowa, Louisiana and Alabama,” he said. “One of our shelters was installed for a customer in Alabama who was in the Tuscaloosa tornadoes in 2011. She took a direct strike from the tornado (which was an EF4). It’s an eight-person shelter; she had 19 people and four dogs. And when they came out, their neighborhood was hit hard.”
It’s their best-selling type of shelter.
“The concrete, hands-down, is the most popular because you get the most shelter for the money,” West said. “The tornado blows over it like wind over a turtle shell.”
But they also install above-ground, structural steel safe-rooms, bolted into the foundation and capable of withstanding a direct hit of winds whipping at 250 miles per hour. They come in sizes as small as a phone booth.
Kevin Simmons is an economy professor at Austin College in Sherman. His research specializes in the economics of natural disasters. He has co-authored multiple books about the costs of tornadoes including “Deadly Season: Analysis of the 2011 Tornado Outbreaks” and “Economic and Societal Impacts of Tornadoes.”
“My wife and I just spent $4,000 on a safe room in our house,” Simmons said. “If we took a direct hit from a storm like they had in Moore, it probably couldn’t survive it. It’s difficult to afford a shelter that is 100 percent effective. It all comes down to how much risk you are willing to take.”
“It’s a big-ticket item,” West said. “And tornadoes are like car wrecks. It’s something that happens to other people. Everybody assumes it’s something that’s not going to happen to them. And people generally think tornado shelters are a lot more expensive than they really are. A lot of our customers are shocked that they can buy a reinforced concrete, in-ground shelter installed for less than $3,500. We build a very strong shelter at an affordable price.”
The chances of getting hit by an EF5, like the one that hit Moore, Okla, in May, are very small. Out of the last 60,000 tornadoes that have touched down in the United States, fewer than 60 have been rated EF5.
Simmons said people who live in manufactured homes are at the most risk of dying in a tornado.
“The vast majority (about 76 percent) of tornadoes are EF0 or EF1,” Simmons said. “About the only fatalities that occur from tornadoes of this scale are in manufactured homes.”
West actually got into the storm shelter business because of the manufactured home he lives in. They moved here from Fort Worth.
“My wife told me if we’re going to live in a manufactured home, we’re going to have a storm shelter,” he said.
One thing led to another, and they eventually started their own company building and installing storm shelters. Now they’re coping with a storm of orders after the calm. That’s because after witnessing the destruction in Granbury and Moore, people realize that no place, no matter how sturdy, is completely safe without a storm shelter.
“If you’re talking about an EF3 and better, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a brick home in the city,” West said. “It’s going to go down.”