Shelter from the storm: May's deadly twisters create fresh demand

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TDECATUR, Texas — Brett West says his storm shelter business was having its slowest year since 2005. It was so bad that when a key employee left, his position wasn’t filled, and out of desperation, West discounted $3,495 in-ground shelters by $500 to drum up sales.

Then came the mid-May tornadoes that thumped North Texas, heavily damaging a subdivision in Granbury, followed by powerful twisters that rolled over Edmond and Moore, Okla.

“People don’t think about storm shelters until a tornado occurs. It’s human nature,” said West, 46, who has seen the buying pattern repeat itself again and again since he and his father, Ron, started the business eight years ago. “Now everyone’s terrified and everyone wants a storm shelter.”

From hardly any requests, his U.S. Storm Shelters LLC now has a five-month backlog. “Just since the Granbury tornado, we booked in excess of 150 shelters and the list is going up,” he said. “And there are 200 emails in my inbox; I have not begun to look.”

“I talked to other companies in the industry and they are as busy as we are,” said West.

Said Mary Peters, who runs of Ken-Mar Storm Cellars in Cleburne, Texas: “We have sold all of the storm cellars in inventory.”

“It’s insane,” West said of the surge in demand. Each time he has an extended telephone conversation, there’s usually 10 to 15 voicemails from prospective buyers trying to get through to him.

The family-owned business is now working seven days a week building the fero-concrete structures, as well as heavy steel C-channel plate safe-room structures that start at $2,995. From four workers, he’s adding three part-timers and one full-time worker next week “and we’re looking for two or three more at least, full-time.”

West waited until Thursday to end the sale price on shelters to show he wasn’t trying to take advantage of the disasters, and he isn’t raising his regular price to exploit the high demand and limited supply, he said.

Nearly all the callers say the same thing, West said. “I can’t tell you how many I’ve talked to who said they’d been thinking about it for 20 years and just didn’t get around to it.” The tragic news from Granbury and Oklahoma made up many minds,

Byron Osborn, of Parker County, Texas, was one of them. The day after the Granbury tornado, Osborn told his wife, “This is it. I am going to get one.”

The 34-year-old antique restorer and cattle rancher said, “I’d been wanting one for a while. We have a big house but no safe place. So when the storms hit Granbury and Cleburne and Oklahoma, I went out to see Brett. I had no doubts at all.” It was installed Thursday.

Steve Tenpenny of Fort Worth, Texas, made his move before this year’s rash of tornadoes. “My dad and I had talked about it off and on for several years,” he admitted.

When Tenpenny bought a house around the corner from his parents, the two families decided collaborate on a storm shelter in his backyard which had more room. U.S. Storm Shelters installed it weeks before the Granbury tornado.

“Fortunately, we hadn’t had anything close enough for us to have to use it yet,” Tenpenny said. “But there had been two times when my parents hung out at the house in case they needed to go into the shelter.”

Whenever friends and family are over for a barbecue or to watch a game on TV, he said, “everybody wants to go inside.”

West doesn’t take down payments, especially after a customer told him she had prepaid $3,000 for a storm shelter from Bowie, Texas that was never delivered. He said the industry has earned a spotty reputation because of fly-by-night operators.

And he’s under no illusion that some among the 200 people on the waiting list will opt out once tornado season is over. The fickleness of the market is part of the industry.

“This is an easy business to starve to death in,” said West, who previously was a technical writer for his father’s previous venture, Pegasus Software Systems. “I’m downwardly mobile,” he joked.

After a crush of orders following tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., in 2011, silence fell upon the company last summer. “It was like the phone line was cut,” he said. And a return to such a lull won’t come unexpectedly.

West said, “We sell a product we hope you never have to use.”

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