Published November 20, 2014
When storm clouds threatened his childhood home, James Firestone's family knew where to go until the menace had passed: a bunker-like hole in the backyard that could withstand even the most powerful tornado.
But when a twister struck the central Arkansas town of Vilonia, where Firestone is now mayor, he had to seek safety in an ordinary closet because his current home had no storm shelter.
"I would have felt much safer if I had something like that to go to," said Firestone, whose house was one of the few that escaped damage from the tornado last month that killed four people.
Old-fashioned storm shelters have become relics of the past as developers increasingly build homes and entire neighborhoods without them. That leaves many people with nowhere to go except an interior hallway or a bathroom when the sirens blow. And as this week's storm in Joplin proved, that's often not enough.
"If anything, we're moving away from having a place to go during a storm," said Steve Melman, director of economic services for the National Association of Home Builders.
The shelters that were common in the 1930s and 1940s, if not earlier, were usually no more than a concrete-lined hole with a locking metal door. They were seldom larger than a walk-in closet and were designed to protect a handful of people for only 20 or 30 minutes — just long enough for the storm to pass.
But now even basements are becoming less common, and they are no longer a guaranteed safe spot. Experts warn that basements without an integrated concrete roof or with windows could be just as dangerous as above-ground parts of the home.
Only 28 percent of new homes had full or partial basements in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's a steep decline from 1992, when 38 percent had one.
The reason for the decline varies from place to place. In some areas, it's just not practical to build a basement because of soil conditions. And some builders say penny pinching buyers are less likely to opt for something that adds to the price of a home.
"With the recession we've had over the last few years, people want as much for their money as they can get," said Todd Wilcox, president of the Arkansas Home Builders Association.
For the past 10 years, Eric Hawkins has taken refuge with his wife and daughter under a stairwell or in a windowless bathroom whenever they feared severe weather. But after the Vilonia twister, the 39-year-old cattle farmer wanted something more.
"I just decided I had pushed my luck as long as I wanted to." Days later, he ordered a Kevlar-and-steel storm room installed in his house in nearby Mount Vernon.
Storm rooms are the modern equivalent of the backyard shelter, except they are built inside the home and can often be used as closets or even safes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency began encouraging their construction after a series of tornadoes in Oklahoma City in 1999 killed more than three dozen people.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said the Joplin twister will prompt consideration of stronger building codes and other measures that could offer protection. But legal solutions only go so far, he cautioned.
"I don't know if man could build something strong enough to handle what came through," Nixon said. "I don't know you could write a building code that could stop a nine-story hospital from having its roof ripped off and torn from its foundation."
Nevertheless, some officials say changes are in order. In Iowa, where most communities require buildings to withstand at least 90 mph winds, experts wonder whether that standard should be increased.
"It's not sufficient to withstand the kinds of storms we've been seeing," said David Brown, a building official for the city of Ames.
When Sunday's twister roared through Joplin, Melody Ward, her husband and five children tried to take cover in a 3-foot-deep crawl space. Their home was leveled. Ward and two of the children were hospitalized.
"We were probably pretty naive about the impact of tornadoes and the necessity of a basement," Ward said, explaining that the family bought the house after looking at about 30 homes. Only one had a basement.
She won't go without a basement in her next home.
"I will do without a gourmet kitchen so I can have a basement," she said, laughing.
More than 500 people have been killed by tornadoes this year, with the heaviest losses happening in Joplin, where at least 132 people were killed.
In towns like Vilonia, some residents without shelters of their own ride out storms in a neighbor's shelter or at public shelters, which might be at schools or churches.
In the Alabama town of Cordova, Paula Hastings and her husband survived an April 27 twister by hiding in the basement of their stone-and-masonry home, which dates to the 1800s.
The tornadoes appeared so suddenly, the couple could not have fled to a public shelter even if they tried. She worries about friends and neighbors living in less substantial homes.
"What about the people in trailers?" Hastings asked. "I think we really do need shelters."
For now, the spate of recent storms has generated lots of new business for crews that install storm shelters or storm rooms. Contractors throughout the Midwest and South say they have been inundated with orders for the past month and a half, and that demand is bound to continue.
"Most of all, it's just a general awareness that's coming around," that severe weather is becoming a greater threat, said Jared Gray of Arkansas Storm Shelters. He said he's seen as much business in the six weeks as he would in a two-year period.
Marty Strough, who installed Hawkins' storm room this week, said most of his business comes from existing buildings that were constructed without a basement.
Because many basements are no longer considered adequate shelter, it's becoming increasingly rare to hear television meteorologists refer to them when telling viewers to seek shelter.
"They're more and more backing away from that," said Strough, who owns Storm Solutions in Berryville, Ark. Instead, broadcasters urge people to "go to your safe place and safe room."
Some states offer rebates or other incentives for construction of the rooms. In Arkansas, residents can apply for up a government rebate of up to $1,000 for the installation of a shelter that meets FEMA standards. Since 2009, more than 15,000 people have received the money, and more than 500 others are on a waiting list, Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Renee Preslar said.
The benefit of a storm room was clear to Diana Swenson, who emerged from the Kevlar-and-steel storm shelter in her Joplin garage to find much of her house severely damaged from the tornado. She hopes to rebuild, and she definitely wants to keep the shelter.
Strough has offered to keep it in storage until she's ready. She accepted the offer, but added: "I want it back."
Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant and Alan C. Zagier in Joplin, Mo.; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas; Timberly Ross in Omaha, Neb.; Melanie Welte in Des Moines, Iowa; and Jay Reeves in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.