Safe Zone: Business Offers Shelter from Storms

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The National Hurricane Center predicts this summer will be above-average for tornados, with possibly six major Category 3 storms pummeling parts of the nation.

The news comes after the 2011 spring season brought a deadly round of twisters to the Midwest and Southeast. In April, more than 25 people died, following one round of storms that wreaked havoc in six states.

With the memory of April's devastation having yet to fade, the latest forecast has many people seeking shelter underground.

Scary Dance with Nature

Steph and Cindy Willis found themselves facing a twister Sept. 17, 2004, many miles away from Tornado Alley. They were visiting Cindy's parents in Caroline County, Va. 

The couple recently recalled each frightening moment in an interview with CBN News.

Steph Willis: It was just after all the hurricanes had come through. It was a sunny day, but there were clouds.

Cindy Willis: So, my mom and I are sitting on the back porch. And I start hearing this really, strange sounded like helicopter blades.

Steph Willis: My wife went outside and started looking around.

Cindy Willis: My father comes out at that point and he also hears the noise. So he walks to the end of the driveway so he can see around that last pine tree and starts screaming, "It's a tornado -- get under the house!"

Steph Willis: They were yelling for me. I went outside and the first thing I see is a tree flying over my head. At that point I knew something was horribly wrong.

Cindy Willis: Next thing you know, we are under the house. Steph has finally joined us and is holding the crawl space door so he can see out. And the tornado was coming up the driveway.

Steph Willis: It was snapping trees coming down the driveway and just shooting them down the driveway like missiles.

National Weather Service investigators later told Steph and Cindy it was actually two twisters that flattened her parents' garage, flipped a nearby trailer, and "shook up" their lives.

"What happened after that experience is every spring and summer when tornado season would roll around, we would just feel anxious," Cindy told CBN News. "What if we had to relive a tornado event again?"

Shelter from the Storm

After three years of living in fear, Steph and Cindy decided to install an underground, fiberglass storm shelter. It is 10 feet by 6 feet and can hold up to 12 people.

"We have a weather radio, so if the weather radio goes off and it is a warning, which we take serious now, we will immediately go to our shelter. And it is such peace of mind," Cindy said.

That feeling of security inspired the couple to go into the business of safety. Steph is a licensed contractor and Cindy works in finance. Under their new business, Safe Zone Shelters, the couple now market, sell, and install storm shelters.

"I guess the hope is, of course, you will never need it, but you will," Steph said. "We had ours in the ground for four years and we have been in ours a number of times."

Like storm shelter companies in the Midwest, the Willises saw an increase after spring twisters in unexpected places like Gloucester County, Va.

Steph estimates his office received more than a thousand calls in the 30 days that followed the April twisters.

Shelters are not a small ticket item. The smallest underground fiberglass shelter in the Willises' shop costs about $7,000.

But Cindy pointed out," You cannot put a price tag on safety and it is worth every penny we spent."

Community Shelters

Government plans for community storm shelters are also on the drawing board.

About 50 are slated for southern Mississippi. Chilton County, Ala., has five and is adding three.

In Missouri, 25 schools are planning for shelters. And in Tulsa, Okla., one school district is rebuilding a 150-person safe room.
                                                                      
Peace of Mind

Their storm shelter and new business have given the Willises peace of mind. And it may have inspired the career goals of their 10-year-old son, Derek. 

"He has become quite fascinated with severe weather," Cindy said.

"His dream is to become a meteorologist and storm chaser," Steph added.

So, some day Derek could be racing toward the storm just as mom and dad take shelter away from it.

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Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.