The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 6, 2012

Storm shelter business booming after tornado outbreak

By Jean Cole

— Many Alabama residents who survived the onslaught of tornados April 27 last year decided they wouldn’t face another storm season without a shelter.

At the front of the line were Limestone County residents who endured one of the worst of the 62 tornadoes that battered the state that day—an EF5 that killed 248.

More than 20 private shelters have been built in the county since the April storms, which killed four people and destroyed or damaged at least 700 homes and 90 businesses, said Daphne Ellison, communications officer for the Limestone County Emergency Management

Of those 20, 11 or 12 of those were built on property that had been in the direct path of the EF5 twister that struck the communities of Tanner and East Limestone around 4 p.m.

“A lot of them are installing in-ground shelters, like the ones where the cut an opening in the garage floor and add a shelter,” Ellison said. 

Roger Black was in Ireland when the storm struck. When he returned and saw the devastation, he decided to get a shelter at his home off Thompson Road west of Athens.

“I’ve been in this house 34 or 35 years and I’d thought about digging one,” said Black, the brother of former EMA Director Spencer Black. “We had one when we were growing up. After seeing the destruction in the county and other places, I thought it would be nice to have a place where we felt safer.”

He hired Safe-T-Shelter of Danville to build him a steel-plate, aboveground shelter that is now securely bolted in his detached garage. It can withstand an EF5 tornado with 250 to 260 mile per hour winds.

Shelter builders

If you are thinking of installing a shelter, there are several companies that can do it. Costs range widely — from $2,500 to $8,000 or more — depending on size, materials and location above or below ground. Or, you can build your own shelter. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers designs and tips in its FEMA 320 guide, which you can find online at

If you want to see an aboveground tornado shelter that actually survived the April 27 outbreak, Tornado Masters on Alabama 53 in Toney has one in its showroom.

Seventy-six-year-old Barbara Miller of Madison and her 100-pound German Shepherd survived the EF5 tornado that struck the Anderson Hills area, said Kelly Hughes of Tornado Masters.

“Miss Miller said she fed crackers to her dog while they were in there,” Hughes said.

When they emerged, most of the house, except for one wall was, was leveled. A neighbor in her subdivision off Carters Gin Road was killed.”

When Miller rebuilt elsewhere, the company gave her a new shelter.

Aboveground models, which are bolted into concrete, start at $3,995, Hughes said.

Business has been good.

Between May and December 2011, the company built 210 shelters in North Alabama and Tennessee, she said.

Aboveground shelters can also double as “panic rooms,” a safe place to go if an intruder breaks in or as a place to store valuables when one is away.

There are several other experienced storm-shelter companies building in the area, Ellison said, including SteelSafe Shelters built by Rhodes Construction of Madison, Safe-T-Shelter of Danville and Fain Storm Shelters of Jackson, Tenn.

Current and future shelters

Athens and Limestone County officials have applied for money grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build six community storm shelters, including two 100-person shelters in Athens. However, how much city and county governments might receive and when is unclear.

Other options

Ellison advises those who don’t have a private shelter, particularly those who live in mobile homes, to find a community shelter or speak with neighbors to see if there is a private shelter or basement nearby they can access during storms.