Historically dark, damp and crawling with spiders, a tornado shelter gives many people the willies.

Lee Ford has carved out an alternate experience.

The customized steel box beneath the staircase in his Bixby home is soothing instead of icky. Trimmed in white Christmas lights triggered by a motion sensor, the safe room is carpeted and equipped with a 19-inch television and two outlets for electricity.

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“I made it kind of a charming space,” Ford said. “It kind of makes it more relaxing when you go in there, that low light. You want it to feel comfortable because usually you are kind of panicked when you have to go in there.”

It is the scary season in Oklahoma.

In an average year, 1,200 tornadoes cause 60 to 65 deaths and 1,500 injuries nationwide, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration statistics.

Oklahoma averages about 56 tornadoes per year, most occurring in May, according to the National Weather Service.

That reputation for dangerous weather tends to raise residents’ preparedness. The SoonerSafe Safe Room Rebate Program was developed in 2011 by the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management to provide a rebate for the purchase and installation of safe rooms for state homeowners.

“This business is very fear-influenced, weather-driven,” said Charlie Willsey, owner of Tornado Place Storm Shelters in Tulsa. “Sales are definitely influenced by the threat and if one really happens. If we had tornado warnings tonight, people would start calling tonight and in the morning. If we already had them on the books for installation, they’d be calling and saying, ‘Can’t you get it in any quicker?’”

Willsey’s company built Ford’s fraidy hole, which encompasses about 30 square feet. It is 5 foot 4 inches high at the entrance, with the ceiling dropping about 11 inches before meeting the slope of the staircase at 4 feet.

“He (Willsey) wanted to push the limits of fabrication and make something custom for this space,” Ford said. “He is in a market where there is a lot of vanilla. He is doing one thing that is setting himself apart from other people. And he’s flexible.”

Ford’s family — he is married with an 8-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter — has taken shelter in the room about five times in the past two years. If they are threatened by an intruder, it also can double as a panic room.

“We really wanted something to fit this space,” Ford said. Otherwise, “it’s just wasted space under the stairs.”

Tornado Place deals strictly in above-ground safe rooms, which average from $4,500 to $5,000, Willsey said.

“The great part about it is that we bring people peace of mind,” he said. “Once they have a shelter in place and anchored to the concrete, they have this peace of mind that they will never have to worry about any kind of tornadic activity.”

David Tidwell of Southern Safe Rooms in Tulsa said his company has customized underground shelters to include false doors to hide guns and other valuables.

Terry Brown is one of the owners of Great Plains Storm Shelters in Tulsa.

“I’ve been doing this about five years, and typically it’s about half and half underground and safe rooms,” he said. “But this year, hands down, there have been way more underground.”

Monty McGee, who co-owns Tornado Alley Armor Safe Rooms with his wife, Leslie, said the impetus for their business was the May 2011 tornado that killed 161 people in Joplin, Missouri. On a flight back from vacation, they picked out a name for the company and began thinking about designs.

“We came up with a modular design that is narrow enough to fit into a garage and still let you get your vehicles in,” he said.

One of the keys to staying in the shelter business, he said, is preparing for the down time.

“The ones (businesses) that plan ahead with their cash flow are the ones that survive,” he said. “It’s an unregulated industry, so it’s easy to get into the business. But being able to survive the slow seasons and the cyclic nature of the sales season is another matter.”

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Rhett Morgan



Twitter: @RhettMorganTW