Today’s storm shelters and safe rooms provide peace of mind
Jennifer Boling still remembers the way the sky looked. “It just looked so odd to me, like it was angry,” she recalls.
The Choctaw Electric Cooperative (CEC) employee had just returned home from work and settled in with her grandson and daughter-in-law before the storm hit.
“I remember telling my daughter-in-law, ‘We need to get to the storm shelter now,’” she recalls. “I grabbed my grandson, and we ran.”
When they emerged several minutes later, she was relieved to find her home still standing, but the barn was gone. Gone, too, were the shed and her next-door neighbor’s back porch. Nevertheless, she felt grateful. Without a place to take cover, a slight shift in the tornado’s path would have wiped out her home with her family in it.
Boling’s experience makes her a natural spokesperson for CEC’s storm shelter program. Among other responsibilities, she is program coordinator. She estimates CEC has helped more than 700 co-op members install storm shelters. A partnership with the shelter manufacturer ensures professional delivery and installation services while CEC financing allows them to stretch the payments over five years.
Storm shelters today are a far cry from Auntie Em’s root cellar with nifty features such as spring-loaded doors, handrails, ventilation fans, battery-powered lights and room for extended family. Storm shelter prices range from a few thousand dollars to $10,000 and up depending on shelter dimensions. Boling says CEC’s no-frills precast concrete in-ground shelter starts at $2,450, not exactly small change for folks on a limited income.
“A lot of our members don’t have that kind of money in their back pocket. Being able to finance their purchase through us makes safe shelter affordable for everyone,” Boling adds.
Moved by the stories from the May 3, 1999, tornado outbreak, CEC’s board and management pushed for the safe shelter program because they felt safety should not be determined by a homeowner’s income or location. Many rural residents in Oklahoma live beyond earshot of storm sirens, while the nearest community shelter—if one exists—may be several miles away.
A 2016 statewide disaster resiliency report found Choctaw, McCurtain and Pushmataha counties hold a high population of residents considered socially vulnerable due to age, income, mental health, limited transportation and physical mobility. Quick access to safe shelter is especially critical for these residents.
Last year, the co-op widened its safety aim by adding concrete and steel fabricated above-ground safe rooms to its options. Above-ground safe rooms are a top choice for their ability to withstand winds of 250 mph plus flying debris, as well as their easy access. “Our membership is aging, and a lot of them find it hard to get into an underground shelter,” she points out.
Even with handrails and other safety features, below-ground models prove challenging for those with limited mobility due to the steep stairs, she explains.
CEC members Ladonna and Jim Barber of Haworth recognize the hazards of limited mobility in terrible weather. The couple experienced a setback in 2019 when Jim suffered a paralyzing stroke that left him unable to walk and reliant on a motorized wheelchair.
“There’s no way I could get him into an underground shelter,” Ladonna says. “Even if I did get him down there, there’d be no way we could get him out.”
After watching a storm topple several big trees in the front yard two years ago, they decided to reach out to their co-op.
“There was nothing we could do but just stand there and watch it,” she says. “We had nowhere else to go.”
The community of Tom offers a public shelter 12 miles away, but it takes time to get themselves loaded in the car, and driving during a tornado is ill-advised. They could high tail it to the neighbor’s shelter a half-mile down the road, Ladonna ponders, but what if it were full?
Now, those worries are gone. Today, the Barbers enjoy peace of mind with an 8-by-10, above-ground safe room just a few steps from their home. A quick disaster drill ensures them Jim can easily wheel himself to the shelter and get inside without assistance.
When a storm moved through in April, the Barbers lay in bed and listened to the wind howl. No need to take cover, Ladonna recalls, but it was nice to know they could.
“We aren’t terrified of storms or anything like that, but it’s awful nice to know we have a place to go to if we need it,” she says. “That alone makes it worth it.”
What’s Your Plan?
Storm season is here, so where will you go when the sirens sound? Kelli Cain, public information manager for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management says you can never be too prepared. A few reminders:
- Plan ahead. Make sure your family knows exactly where you will take shelter.
- Prepare an emergency kit with supplies such as a first aid kit, drinking water, flashlight and batteries, non-perishable snacks, an emergency radio, and tools such as a crowbar, jack, or spreader if you need to pry open the shelter door. Store the kit in your shelter, so you always have it.
- Register your shelter location with your local fire department, local emergency managers, and family members.
- Never leave your home in the middle of a storm. Many people suffer serious injuries trying to flee at the last minute.
Find more storm survival tips at the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management website.