Storm shelters have become relics of the past

Soil conditions, penny pinching are factors in decline of rooms

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — When storm clouds threatened his childhood home, James Firestone’s family knew where to go until the menace had passed: a bunkerlike hole in the backyard that could withstand even the most powerful tornado.

But when a twister struck the central Arkansas town of Vilonia, where Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

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