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Purchases of Home Storm Shelters Leave Public Ones Unused

"(Customers) do this every year. When the storms come in, they get nervous and then they start looking for a shelter. And then during the off season they don't worry about it. Every year."

The wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were killed when a tornado hit Moore, Okla., May 23. A petition has since been signed by more than 17,000 people to require storm shelters in schools in the state. (Photo: AP/Brennan Linsley)
(TNS) - Interest in home storm shelters has increased with severe weather causing damage in Morgan County on three occasions this year and looming as a threat again tonight, but not all of the county's 22 public shelters are receiving heavy use.

The Decatur Police Department opens Decatur High and Austin High as shelters when school is not in session and their use is warranted, but they didn't get heavy use when two tornadoes struck in Morgan County on Saturday morning shortly after midnight.

"They haven't been used much," said Irene Cardenas-Martinez, police spokeswoman. "I think this past time they were open (Friday into Saturday) there were 13 (people) at Austin and three at Decatur. It's never a huge, 200 to 300 (person) crowd."

The shelter at the Morgan County Courthouse also wasn't in demand as much as usual on Friday night into Saturday morning, according to Brandy Davis, Morgan County Emergency Management Agency director.

"At one point, after the January tornadoes, we probably had 100 (people), maybe a little bit more for a period of that" using the courthouse for shelter, she said. "But these last tornadoes there wasn't as many."

Meanwhile, demand for home shelters is strong.

Kendall Blaxton, owner of Steel Strong Shelters in Hartselle, said his sales have increased by 300% this year.

"(Customers) do this every year," he said. "When the storms come in, they get nervous and then they start looking for a shelter. And then during the offseason they don't worry about it. Every year."

Blaxton said his firm builds above-ground shelters, and the most popular sizes are units between the sizes of a 4-by-5-foot floor area that holds five to six people and a 5-by-8-foot unit that holds 11 to 12 people. The capacity each shelter holds must meet Federal Emergency Management Agency ( FEMA ) standards which require 3-square-feet per person, he said.

"We build two a day, but when it gets backed up like it is now we wind up with at least a two-week back order," Blaxton said.

Dustin Mitchell, chief operations officer and vice president of business development for Safe-T-Shelter in Hartselle, said over the last three years his sales have increased by 500%.

He said it's probably because of "the bad weather we've had, and the tax credit Alabama has been offering. ... This week has been a very busy week due to the storms ... this past weekend."

Mitchell said the state tax credit is available for taxpayers purchasing a shelter that meets FEMA specifications.

"You can actually apply for a tax credit at the end of the year ... for spending that money on a shelter," he said. "They'll pay for 50% of the cost of the shelter or up to $3,000."

Michell said his company builds above-ground storm shelters, and its most popular size is a 4-by-6-foot unit that holds eight people.

Mitchell said Safe-T-Shelter builds six to eight residential shelters a week and also constructs commercial shelters. He said it currently takes eight to 10 weeks from the time someone places an order until the shelter is installed. Mitchell said a labor shortage has slowed them down as well as material shortages on items such as paint.

Shelters' new name

Davis said the public storm shelters are now referred to as "safer places."

"What has happened at the state level is they have started encouraging what is called safer places," she said. "It's a situation where it's going to be a safer place than a mobile home. So, all of our storm shelters at this point are considered safer places and not necessarily FEMA -rated storm shelters."

Davis said Priceville Town Hall is one of the locations that is not FEMA rated but is still safer than a mobile home or camper.

There are 22 safer places or shelters in Morgan County for inclement weather, including volunteer fire departments, schools and government buildings.

Cardenas-Martinez said in Decatur the police department's command staff "monitors weather conditions to determine when school shelters are opened. School shelters are opened when they are not in session. The DPD will announce when school shelters will open."

Davis said each safer place will hold a different capacity of people.

"Some of them are storm shelters, like the metal tube shelters, and they hold about 98, roughly 100 people apiece," she said. "But some of those are schools that would hold a lot more, considerably more, and not be a limited capacity."

In Decatur, two government buildings open as shelters, said Cardenas-Martinez.

"When a tornado watch is issued, Decatur City Hall and the Morgan County Courthouse basements automatically open as storm shelters," she said.

There are rules for anyone wanting to use the shelters in Morgan County, Cardenas-Martinez said.

"No firearms, alcohol, tobacco at the shelters," she said. "Pets, cats and dogs, are allowed at Decatur City Hall as long as they are on a leash or in a crate. Pets are not allowed in school shelters."

Weather warning

Dan Dixon, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville, said more severe weather is expected to move in tonight.

"Right now, for (the Decatur) area, I would probably say anywhere from ... maybe midnight to 2 a.m. It may start a little sooner than that," he said. "I wouldn't expect it to last in the Decatur area longer than maybe 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. (Saturday)."

Dixon said the storm is expected to have the potential to cause damage.

"We're mainly concerned about damaging winds and tornadoes, kind of what we experienced last week," he said. "Possibility of hail, but that's kind of lower on our spectrum right now."

Wind gusts are expected to be strong, Dixon said.

"I would say with the thunderstorms you're going to be looking at at least 60 to 70 mph winds," he said. "The non-thunderstorm winds are going to be fairly significant, too, out in front of it and even behind it for a few hours. You may be seeing gusts of 45 to 50 mph."

Dixon said low temperatures Friday night will be in the high 50s to low 60s. Saturday temperatures will be in the low to mid 70s and Saturday night will cool off with low temperatures in the high 30s to low 40s.

Kurt Weber, another meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville, said tornado season in this area can go from late February to May but the worst months are March and April, although severe weather can happen anytime. He said the amount of tornadic activity so far this year is not an anomaly.

"I wouldn't say it's atypical but I would say we've had a very active pattern regardless," he said. "It varies over the years. ... We can have some seasons where we don't have much in March and April; it's rare but it can happen."

There have been three instances of extensive storm damage in the Decatur area this year.

The most recent damage occurred early Saturday. One tornado struck the Hartselle area at about 12:20 a.m. and left a man dead. Another tornado, an EF1 with 94 mph winds, hit Lacey's Spring at 12:47 a.m.

On Jan. 12 an EF1 tornado made its way from Lawrence County, through Decatur and ended at Pryor Field Regional Airport. It had 104 mph winds and traveled 30.4 miles.

A storm with winds as high as 77 mph on March 3 toppled trees, damaged homes and caused power outages in the area.

©2023 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.