It was seeing the streets sucked clean of pavement in 1999 that made Oklahoma City home builder Caleb McCaleb a believer in storm shelters for homes.
As a director of the Central Oklahoma Home Builders Association at the time, McCaleb saw the fresh damage from the tornado that year first-hand. A few years later, when he built his own family’s home, he included a walk-out basement with the back side fortified into a storm shelter. It was there that his family huddled last week when the tornadoes ripped down the same alley they favored in 1999, 2003, and now 2013, leaving thousands of Oklahoma residents homeless and bereft.
Inside their concrete-fortified shelter, the McCaleb family heard nothing and knew nothing except that they were safe.
“We lost power, and inside the basement it was so quiet because of the concrete that you didn’t know what was going on. The cell phones didn’t even work because of the concrete.”
Why more Oklahoma residents don’t have home shelters might seem absurd to those from the outside.
“If you see the overlay of those three storms, they literally were almost parallel to each other,” McCaleb said.
But the very frequency of tornadoes can be an enemy to preparedness.
“I think that people in Oklahoma, you hear the sirens and you hear the warnings on TV so much that sometimes you don’t take the precautions you should,” he said. “We have had so many storms over the years that people have almost become resigned.”
Not McCaleb; he offers storm shelters to his customers and most of them choose the option for a $3,000 galvanized shelter built beneath the garage floor that can fit six to eight people. But McCaleb’s customers are a bit better-heeled than the typical Oklahoma City resident. His homes average $275,000.
Still, he marvels at people’s priorities when safety can be had for $3,000. “People are spending $25,000 on a pickup truck. Why can’t they spend $3,000 on a storm shelter?”
He said the government offered about $2,000 to $2,500 to build storm shelters after the 1999 storm, and the program ran out of money.
“At the time it basically paid for a free storm shelter. They need to initiate something like that,” he said.
McCaleb is a proponent of another home option that would provide residents with shelter during a storm and more living space in their homes—basements. Basements are rare in Oklahoma, where most homes are built on slabs by tradition.
“We can do basements in Oklahoma,” said McCaleb. “There are lots of people who have a whole lot of reasons why basements are not affordable, but in Wichita, Kansas, which is two and a half hours north of here, the vast majority have full basements. Our big basement contractor here is from Wichita, and when he came here he told me our soil is basically the same as Wichita's.”
For now, McCaleb’s business is impacted because some of his trade contractors live in the Norman area and some lost their homes, not just to the Monday storm that hit Moore, but also to tornadoes that hit Edmond on Sunday, the day before.
His trim supplier has lost two houses over the years to storms, he said. His mirror installer and his plumber were impacted as well.
After the debris is hauled away and rebuilding begins, McCaleb is expecting some of the same problems that occurred after the 1999 twister.
“Just like anything else, it will be supply and demand impacting labor and materials, which will make it hard to build on-time and within a budget,” he said.
Labor might be particularly difficult to get because other markets have begun to recover, so its less likely trades will be interested in moving from those markets to Oklahoma City. “It would be easy to say, 'Hey, people will move here from Texas to build, or they will move here from Kansas,' but all those home building markets are recovering.”
And who will do the rebuilding is a question mark as well. McCaleb doesn’t build in Moore, which is 30 miles away from his neighborhoods.
And there is the question of whether people will rebuild in the same place or take their insurance money and move somewhere else, perhaps some place where tornado sirens don’t frequently punctuate spring afternoons.
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for BUILDER magazine.