Precast concrete shelter protects residents when tornados strike.
By Bridget McCrea
Stephanie Steele was at a loss. Her blind son Jeremy, 25, was attending school and working in Mount Pleasant, Mich., a few hours from the family home in Elwell. Steele worried about him. On his own and living in a mobile home, he didn’t have the luxury of being able to jump into a car to get out of harm’s way during a tornado or other inclement weather.
“I thought the mobile home park would have a shelter for him, but quickly found out that most people there get in their cars and go to the hospital or school for shelter,” says Steele. “No one could help us.”
Not ready to give up yet, Steele started researching prefabricated, underground shelters. Most were cost-prohibitive – $4,000 – and the mobile home park was dead set against her installing one near Jeremy’s home anyway. Then she discovered a precast product being marketed by Storm Defender of Lee Summit, Mo.
She breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“This was just the thing,” says Steele. “I knew the park wouldn’t complain about how it looked because it’s just a set of stairs, and everyone has to have front and back stairs on their mobile homes.” The steps double as a storm shelter, with a weather-tight storm door enclosing the occupants in a securely anchored precast concrete capsule.
Installation of the precast steps/tornado shelter went smoothly, according to Steele, who has already crawled into the shelter on more than one occasion since the product was installed in 2006. “We were putting in Jeremy’s carpeting when the NOAA alert went off, telling us to take shelter immediately and stay away from windows,” says Steele. “We took our two little dogs and climbed in.”
A few days later, Jeremy was home alone while severe weather moved through the area. “He took his blanket and pillow with him and slept out there,” says Steele, who credits the sturdy, heavy precast steps with giving her blind son a fighting chance against Mother Nature.
“This is the only viable solution that we could come up with,” says Steele, “and I honestly slept well that night when he was having the bad weather, knowing that he had the steps to protect him.”
Keeping them secure
Mobile home dwellers are at a higher risk when severe weather strikes. Take one look at the damage from the 2005 hurricanes and recent tornados to see how devastating high winds and wind-blown debris can be. And while construction methods have certainly improved over the past decade, there’s still no guarantee that a home without a foundation and/or basement will stay put during high winds or offer protection to the occupants inside.
Knowing this, Storm Defender came up with an innovative product that can be attached to a mobile home but doesn’t depend on the home’s integrity to stay intact. There are four- and five-step shelters that hold up to six people plus their small pets. Secured to the ground by four double-head tornado anchors, the patented precast concrete step known as a Life Shield Step Shelter is engineered specifically as a storm shelter.
The steps’ concrete is fiber-reinforced with a cast-in steel cage. Much like a typical staircase, the shelter is used for ingress and egress from the mobile home, and is manufactured by a National Precast Concrete Association-certified precast concrete plant. A heavy-gauge steel door opens and latches from both sides (these mechanisms operate similarly to child-safety locks in automobiles).
The shelter has withstood various tests since Storm Defender purchased the patent in 2004. The same year, the product was tested and approved in the Debris Impact Facility of the Wind Science & Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The test protocol, required by FEMA 320 (Taking Shelter From the Storm), simulated the impact of flying debris at wind speeds of 250 mph, according to Amy Burnett, Storm Defender’s marketing manager.
At the Center, Larry Tanner, P.E., research associate, says two tests were conducted primarily on the structure’s heavy-gauge steel door, since 4-inch concrete has been tested repeatedly in the past and easily deflects high-speed wind-blown debris. Burnett says the door was modified after the first test. “We had to bulk up the door a bit,” she says, “but the concrete walls are 6 inches thick, reinforced and powerful.”
Tanner calls the storm shelters “insightful products” that give mobile home residents a viable option when it comes to protecting themselves from deadly storms. “People who live in mobile homes know that they need a place of refuge, because their homes are not going to be safe in high-wind events,” says Tanner, who considers quality control key to the success of precast steps.
“Every mobile home has to have steps to get inside of them,” he says, “and with this product, you get your steps and you get your shelter all in one.”
The fine points
Mobile home residents may know the value of a good storm shelter, but if you talk to the structure’s manufacturers and dealers, you’d think the homes were completely immune to hurricanes and tornados. During the business’s first years, Burnett says Storm Defender marketed itself primarily to mobile home retailers and was turned away at the door. “We spent a lot of time going to manufactured home retailers, asking if we could bring one of our steps to their place to show them how it worked,” Burnett says. “They couldn’t get rid of us fast enough.”
Put simply, Burnett says the manufactured home industry doesn’t want to talk about tornados or other threats to their homes. To maximize its marketing efforts, Storm Defender took a different tack and went straight to the consumer via the Internet, through displays at emergency preparedness fairs, and exhibits at other events. “We realized that we had to appeal to individuals and not to retailers,” she says.
The efforts are paying off slowly but steadily as consumers like Steele come to realize the value of having a safe, strong precast structure where they and their families can retreat during bad weather. A different audience purchases the steps not for their manufactured homes, but for the “storm shelter aspect of it,” says Burnett, whose group began marketing the Life Shield products after purchasing the rights from the original patent owner.
“He contacted us about manufacturing the products for him a few years back.” Burnett says. He wasn’t able to market from his location in Delaware and wanted us to manufacture and see what we could sell from the Midwest.” “We got a group together, called ourselves Storm Defender, and bought the patent.” Barbour Concrete, located in Independence, Mo., was enlisted as the exclusive manufacturer of the steps.
From the Barbour Concrete plants come a strong, heavy precast product that is unaffected by a mobile home’s skirting and non-airtight underpinnings. Weighing in at 4,000 pounds, the four-step model anchors securely to the ground from the inside of the steps, eliminating chances for air to pressurize beneath the structure and in some instances, flipping the structure up and over.
“The precast protects you from the tornado in an above-ground format,” says Steele.
Installation of the steps is fairly simple, although sometimes a homeowner will help guide the product into place as it hangs from the crane. Once the holes are drilled with an auger and the anchors are set in place, the project is finished – usually by the delivery person and on the same day.
Also under development right now is a FEMA-approved, closet-style storm shelter for homes that are built on concrete slabs. “Several Midwestern communities are starting to require storm shelters for homes built on slabs,” Burnett says. “We’ve developed a 4-by-4 precast concrete shelter that is installed in the garage during the home’s construction, and we’re building those now.”