It’s hard to imagine any construction method that would make a house tornado-proof. But there is a practical alternative: a tornado safe room. A few miles from Joplin, a local business called Twister Safe has been building safe rooms for years. Stand-alone and self-sufficient, the above-ground units come in various sizes and prices, and anchor to any concrete slab; a typical installation is to bolt the steel safe to a garage floor. I went to visit Enos Davis at the Twister Safe plant in April.
It’s a mom and pop outfit. Enos designs the plate-steel safes and runs the company. Wife Linda handles walk-ins, while daughter Jennifer McKeough is director of business development and marketing. Son Jeremy supervises the shop out back. "We were busy before the Joplin tornado," said Enos. "And since then, we just got swamped." Twister Safe has hired 20 new employees.
Seven Twister Safe units got hit in the Joplin tornado, Enos told me — several of them were direct hits where the house was totaled. I met one of those survivors, Tom Cook. Incredibly, last year’s tornado was the second time Tom’s house has been destroyed by a tornado. The first time, his wife of 19 years, Terri, was killed. The second time, he and his daughter Ryanne survived by hiding in their Twister Safe shelter. The 200-mph-plus winds destroyed Tom’s house, not far from St. John’s Hospital. The Twister Safe got a few scratches in the paint. With his insurance money, Tom bought another house in a different neighborhood.
"There was nothing in his community left standing except for our safe rooms," said Enos Davis. "We brought his Twister Safe back to the shop, cleaned it and repainted it, and we installed it in his new house."
Tom Cook told me his story. In 2008, he and Terri and Ryanne were living in a one-story house on State Highway 86 near Racine, Missouri. With a tornado approaching, they sheltered in the bathroom. "It hit us, and just disintegrated the house," Tom said. "I was thrown about 100 feet. When I come to my senses, I started looking for them, and I found them about another 100 feet east of me." Terri had a broken leg, and Ryanne had some severe cuts and bruises. Tom had a cracked vertebra. "But we were all alive, and they came and took us to the hospital."
Tom and Terri ended up at different hospitals. They would never meet again; after surgery on her leg, Terri developed an unexpected internal bleed and "bled out." "That was that," said Tom.
Upon moving to Joplin, Tom installed a Twister Safe in the garage of his new house. Hearing the warning sirens for the May 2011 storm, he and Ryanne got into it. "After being through one," said Tom, "we weren’t going to let another one sneak up on us." As the storm hit, Tom said, he could hear things banging into the shelter. "Ryanne was saying, ‘You think it’s going to tear up my bedroom?’ and I said, ‘I hope not, Ryanne, but if it does, we’ll get through it.’"
"The worst thing you can hear is the rain on your safe," Tom said, "because then you know that there’s nothing around you. But you just can’t believe that it’s going to happen to you twice in three years. But it did."
Coming out of the shelter, Tom and Ryanne were safe and sound. But like the other survivors, they had lost everything else. Lightly dressed, wearing sandals, they walked away through their shattered neighborhood in search of a place to sleep. A year later, Tom Cook is still haunted by the experience. He can’t get over the feeling that he was somehow a personal target of the two tornadoes. "You get to feeling like, ‘Whose dog did I shoot?’ You know?"
"If I know the weather’s going to be clear for a few days, I get a little relief," said Tom. "But then again, I know that it’s going to end. The only relief we get is during the wintertime." And every time there’s a tornado watch, he and Ryanne both stay awake listening to the radio. Ryanne showed me a closet where she keeps her favorite things — including a high school letter jacket that somehow survived both tornadoes. When there’s a tornado watch, she puts those things in the safe.
"I’m tired of it," said Tom. "I know we can get through it. But I don’t want to see it again. I don’t want to start over. I don’t want to buy knives and forks and wash rags and tea towels all over again."
But he’s alive.
"You can have all the warnings you want," said Jeremy Davis. "But if you don’t have no place to go, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good." Last winter, Twister Safe had a reunion dinner for customers who had sheltered in their units during the Joplin tornado. Twenty-six people attended. Telling me about it, Enos Davis choked up. "Looking around and thinking, ‘We saved all these people’s lives,’" he said. "It was different."
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Joplin, MO.