Indiana Man Goes Underground for Storm Safety

By ROBIN GIBSON, The Star Press | June 17, 2013

Jacques Bell has seen some bad weather in his time; after all, he’s lived in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Indiana, all states that have seen violent storms in recent years.

He’s even done a little storm chasing and spotting, and still has saved on his cellphone a photo of a funnel cloud he spotted around Muncie once.

But he knows he doesn’t want to see a tornado up close, so he has an underground shelter in his backyard.

The availability of basements or storm shelters in case of a tornado has been a national topic of discussion since a deadly EF5 tornado swept through Moore, Okla., on May 20. Subsequent reports on the damage and death toll noted that few houses in that area had basements.

Bell actually had his shelter installed in 2006. The green cover is visible when you enter his fenced-in backyard in northwest Muncie. When the cover is raised, the white plastic interior is visible, with steps leading down to facing built-in benches on either side of a narrow space.

It’s officially a six-person shelter, but Bell suggests up to 10 people could fit. Contrary to the image of a Cold War-era bomb shelter with room for supplies that many of us might picture, this shelter is just meant to be a place you could wait out a storm for 15 to 20 minutes, Bell said. A latch under the door allows the occupants to fasten it shut when they’re inside, and small vents along the sides of the entrance provide ventilation.

The pre-assembled shelter and its installation cost Bell $3,500. “It’s the best $3,500 I ever spent,” he told The Star Press.

Some neighbors questioned his decision to get a storm shelter, suggesting it was a waste of money and citing the local tales about “the bend in the river” protecting Muncie from tornadoes.

Bell’s not content to count on the course of a waterway for supposed protection, however. “Weather’s so unpredictable, and the storms are getting worse,” he said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the best chance for survival is underground.”

Jason Rogers, Delaware County Emergency Management Agency director, is quick to back Bell’s dismissal of the old “bend in the river” theory, calling it “absolutely folklore.”

Muncie has had tornadoes in the past and has just lucked out in recent years, Rogers said. “If that’s you’re emergency plan, that the bend in the river is here, someday you will be sadly mistaken.”

Though he noted the water table in Indiana requires that underground storm shelters be anchored properly, Rogers said installing such shelters is advisable for anyone who doesn’t have a basement as an option. (Bell suggested a separate shelter might be preferable to a basement, since wreckage from the structure above could fall into the basement in a storm.)

Apart from shelters akin to Bell’s, Rogers noted there are other relatively low-cost versions that can be found online, such as one that looks like a large tube you bury in the ground, equipped with a hatch and ventilation.

Estimating how many local residents actually have storm shelters of some kind would be difficult, Rogers added, but regardless of whether they have one, every household should have a plan in place for somewhere to go in case of tornado warnings, whether that’s a shelter, basement or just a windowless interior room.

Considering getting a storm shelter yourself after seeing all the recent reports about killer storms around the country? Don’t wait until the day after the next one; that’s right when calls start pouring in to dealers.

Randy Brown, owner of Brown’s Custom Work in New Castle, sells shelters for Lifesaver Storm Shelters, the same Illinois company that provided Bell’s (though Bell got his through another dealer). Anytime there’s a big storm, Brown knows his phone will be ringing the next day.

He began selling storm shelters about seven years ago, and since the economy has been improving, he’s seen sales climb. A smaller, four-person shelter now sells for $3,750, including installation – which takes less than a day – and a lifetime warranty against defects, Brown said.

Noting he still lives where he did when a tornado went through New Castle in 1974, Brown says he has one of these shelters in his own yard. He agreed with Bell that underground is the safest place in a tornado, and that a basement would be better than nothing, “but a basement’s not a storm shelter.”

Bell’s family used to retreat to an interior bathroom during storms, but now goes out to the backyard when there’s a warning – or even the occasional drill to see how quickly they can get into the shelter. (His wife, Glenda, recalls less than fondly one 3 a.m. trip to the shelter when she had a busy day at work coming up.)

Still, if anyone would take storms seriously, it would be Bell. Not only does he have his earlier years in the storm-prone South for reference, but his daughter, Katherine Bell, is a trained meteorologist.

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