Andy Wise showcases the latest advances in storm shelters - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Andy Wise shares the latest advances in storm shelters

Andy Wise showcases the latest advances in storm shelters

(Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)

The circular saw slices effortlessly through the slab. A backhoe grabs the chunks of concrete like a handful of almonds.

As contractors lower a storm shelter into the gaping hole of her garage, Stella Collins wistfully smiles and thinks of her mom Louise. "She was very afraid of storms, and I guess I got that from her," Collins said.

Louise Collins raised 12 children -- five boys and seven girls, including Stella. Tornado drills were daily sport in their hometown of Coffeeville, Mississippi. In 1969, one particularly nasty storm tested the training of Stella's mom and her dandy dozen. "One time, we were a little late getting up and getting to somebody else's house, and we had to lay down, literally lay down in a ditch because it was just that bad."

That bad experience made Stella a believer in storm shelters. The shelter that contractors are sealing with concrete in her Walls, Mississippi, garage is her third underground storm shelter in three homes.

Her contractor is Express Shelters of Mason, Tennessee. It offers an array of models -- from a 3-foot by 7-foot, $4,000 indoor underground shelter that holds up to four people to a $6,000 5-foot by 8-foot indoor underground shelter that will safely hold between eight and 12 people. "They have three LED lights that are battery-powered, and they also come with a hand-cranked winch. In case anything heavy should fall on top after an event, you can go ahead and get yourself out," said Express Shelters owner Shonah Sprouse. "You have a quarter-inch air gap all the way around to ensure natural air exchange at all times and a slight grade to the concrete decking. That way, it'll divert any water around the shelter instead of inside the shelter."

There are also above-ground shelters, typically six feet tall and in various capacities, that are portable and typically installed in a garage or basement. They have a steel door that seals shut with three steel pins. A quarter-inch of steel separates the occupants from whatever's happening on the outside. 

Sprouse said both types of shelters are built to withstand winds topping 200 miles per hour. The steel must pass strict strength-testing at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas -- in which two-by-fours are fired at the steel components at 110 miles per hour. "They've shown pictures where they've had cars crashing into these shelters, and the shelter stands up, and the car is just smushed," said Sprouse.

Home-builder Dave Tucker of D&D Custom Homes installs a large indoor underground shelter in the garages of each of his model homes in Shelby, Fayette and Tipton County, Tennessee. "Not only is it good for storms, but it's also good if a person wants to change their oil or something like that or even storage...and we've had some people who piqued their interest because of the oil change aspect of it," Tucker said.

Amie Burgess of Collierville, Tennessee, opted for an outdoor underground shelter. Outdoor underground shelters offer the largest capacity -- enough space to hold 16 people. But they get wet. "Because it is outside, you'll see that wind and leaves and everything, it gets down in to the shelter," Burgess said. "There is a little bit of water down there, but to me, that was worth it. My sister and her family live just a couple of blocks away. They could come over to the house as well, and we could accommodate everybody. That's worth it for the peace of mind I now have."

The same peace of mind Stella Collins now has, seven feet below her garage slab and nearly fifty years after that scary day in the ditch with her mom and a dozen siblings.

"When I go down there and close the door, I don't hear the thundering. I don't (see) the lightning, and I feel safe."

Safe rooms save lives, too. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved and helped fund enough storm shelters and safe rooms across Tennessee to shield 29,000 people from severe weather. In Arkansas, 23,987 people have storm shelters or access to safe rooms, according to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. In Mississippi, 60,000 people enjoy the protection of either safe rooms or storm shelters. For details on FEMA funding and grants for safe rooms, please click here

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