Are home storm shelters worth the investment?
LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - It's been 48 years since the F5 tornado touched down in Lubbock, killing 26 people and injuring 500 more. The twister leveled more than 400 houses, leaving 1,800 people homeless.
While it was one of the costliest tornadoes in U.S. history, it inspired a group of Texas Tech researchers to find ways to provide better safety options in storms.
"Researchers then saw small structures still standing when the rest of the neighborhoods were devastated. And so they said, well we're smart engineers, we can design for whatever the winds were," said Larry Tanner, a research assistant professor for the Texas Tech University National Wind Institute.
They quickly realized the best test for storm protection is a full-scale model.
"So the debris impact facility is there to say test materials to make sure they are capable of resisting the wind-born debris," said Dr. Ernst Kiesling, Executive Director for the National Storm Shelter Association.
The team muzzle-loads debris into a 20-foot long air launcher, then sends it at tornado wind speeds.
"A gasoline station would not be of the same structural capability as say a school building. So by identifying the various building types, we were able to better understand at what speed those particular types of structures beg in to fail," said Tanner. He is also the manager of the Debris Impact Facility.
They discovered the most common type of 'missile' found in a debris field is a 15-pound two-by-four. After launching it, they hope to end up with a splintered piece of wood. That's a sign that the structure can withstand the storm.
"That projectile has mass, so it will travel at approximately 100 miles per hour," said Tanner.
It's this research that has pushed more companies to start designing at-home storm shelters.
"Reinforced concrete serves well because it has a hardness and stiffness to carry both the wind loads and the debris," said Kiesling.
"Wood-framed, residential structures, that's what most of our building stock is. They're also the first things to fail under severe winds," said Tanner.
Tom's Tree Place has already installed 4 shelters in Lubbock, with more planned.
"All my customers I've had so far were alive during May 11th and have vivid memories of that. They're all looking for where do you go when John says take cover?" said Alex Scarborough, President of Tom's Tree Place.
Homeowner Candace Hall says the one-day installation and convenient location beneath her garage made her decision to purchase the shelter easy, "The trend with the weather has bothered me a lot lately. The sudden storms coming up, and we haven't had tornadoes here in a while, but eventually we do."
The standard home shelter fits eight to ten people, is surrounded by concrete, and is NSSA-approved and Debris Impact Facility-test.
"This is high-density polyethylene. It's very secure, it has multiple ways of getting the lid open if there's some debris that gets piled on it," said Scarborough.
While they are costly - starting around $3,000 - the security is worth the price.
"When you make a building stronger, safer, you add some cost," said Kiesling.
"When it comes time to use it, it's going to be quick. You know, you're not going to have time to drive to a shelter other than run into your bathroom or whatever location you've picked out in your house. If something happens, you're here, you can get in," said Hall.
FEMA is offering a rebate available for some homeowners that want to add a safe room or storm shelter to their house that pays for part of the cost. You can find more information on the grant at www.fema.gov.
TIMELINE: Minute by minute chronology of Lubbock Tornado, May 11, 1970
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