Archive for Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Residents afraid ‘safe rooms’ in homes not as secure as claimed

May 31, 2011


Lawrence resident Hank Cotton is pictured with his storm shelter, which is built into his garage at Lake View Villas in West Lawrence. Cotton and other neighbors are concerned that their storm shelters may not be as safe as they were led to believe.

Lawrence resident Hank Cotton is pictured with his storm shelter, which is built into his garage at Lake View Villas in West Lawrence. Cotton and other neighbors are concerned that their storm shelters may not be as safe as they were led to believe.

Jeff Waltho says he wasn’t just buying a home when he recently bought one unit of a fourplex off Lake Pointe Drive in west Lawrence.

He also was buying peace of mind. The advertisement for the home even said so.

Waltho had never lived in a Kansas house without a basement. The threat of a tornado always had made that seem like a bad idea. So the fact that his new slab home at 2250 Lake Pointe Drive had a “storm shelter/safe room” in its garage was an important selling point.

At least it was until he started watching a television program on The Weather Channel.

“They were talking about safe rooms and how they needed to be rated for certain wind speeds and what they needed to have to really be safe, and then I started having a lot of questions about mine,” Waltho said.

He had enough questions that he started asking his builder, and it got to the point that the builder’s attorney got involved. What he had to say really didn’t please Waltho.

“In other words,” the letter read, “the storm room is a concrete box with a steel door on it, which is all that was ever promised to you.”

That doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as the language that was on a real estate flier promoting the fourplex: “Oversized two car garage with concrete Storm Shelter/Safe Room for your peace of mind.”

At this point, Waltho doesn’t have peace of mind, and he doesn’t have the storm shelter that he thought he did.

A matter of standards

Lots of people don’t have the storm shelter they think they do, said Larry Tanner, an engineer and researcher at Texas Tech’s Wind Science and Engineering Research Center.

Tanner said the standards to which a storm shelter are built can make a tremendous difference.

“It can be the difference between life and death,” Tanner said. “Over the years, I have seen lots of failed shelters.”

But until recently, there have been no agreed-upon national standards that must be met before a unit can be called a storm shelter or safe room. Most times, if it had concrete walls, a concrete roof and some sort of door that looked sturdier than your average house door, it would be marketed as a storm shelter.

Tanner, though, said that doesn’t make it so. He said that often such storm shelters have a major weakness with their doors.

“Builders will spend thousands of dollars building a concrete room, and then put $100 of locks on a $200 door, and really, I probably could kick that door in,” Tanner said.

But that may be changing. The International Code Council — one of the more heavily used building codes in the country — recently added storm shelter/safe room standards to its codes. When Lawrence updated its version of the ICC regulations recently (but long after 2008, when Waltho’s house was built), the storm shelter standards became the law for any newly built storm shelters in the city.

The standards require the shelters to be built to withstand 250 mph winds and a 15-pound 2-by-4 traveling at 100 mph, among other standards. Those standards will mean specially designed doors rated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have to be used on new shelters.

The standards don’t require any homes to have storm shelters, but the standards likely will have an impact on how many shelters get built in the future. Barry Walthall, building safety manager for the city, said builders and real estate agents won’t be allowed to market the concrete rooms as storm shelters or safe rooms in the future unless they have been built to the code standards.

“From here on out, if they plan on calling it a storm shelter, we will need to look closely at how they intend to build it,” Walthall said.

A step forward?

The bigger question may be whether they will build it at all. Mike Hultine, an owner of Cornerstone Construction, built Waltho’s storm room. He said complaints by Waltho — and now one of Waltho’s neighbors in the fourplex — have soured him so much that he likely won’t build another one of the rooms.

“I thought I was trying to do something good, and now I’m just getting painted as a bad guy,” Hultine said.

Hultine said he believes there are good reasons to provide some type of storm shelter rooms in Kansas homes that don’t have a basement. But he said there’s a reason builders don’t often construct storm shelters to the standards set out by FEMA and others. He said a FEMA-rated door costs $5,500 from his supplier. Tanner said they can be had for about $2,000, but, regardless, they are significantly more expensive than a standard steel, fire-rated door.

“We really were concerned about storms when we built this,” Hultine said. “But we recognized some real cost problems, and we wanted to offer people a reasonable amount of protection at a reasonable price.”

Whether he succeeded is a matter of debate. The room is unique because it is part of a fourplex development. Each unit of the fourplex has a garage. The four garages back up to each other, two on each side. In the center, where the four garages intersect, Hultine built four concrete walls and a concrete roof. Inside those four walls, however, he did not separate the four individual storm rooms via concrete walls. Instead, he used standard wooden studs and Sheetrock.

Waltho argues — and Tanner agrees — that’s inadequate, especially given that none of the four doors to the units is a FEMA-rated tornado door. That means that if even one of the doors is blown off — or for whatever reason simply didn’t get shut — the occupants in the other three storm rooms would be protected on two sides only by the Sheetrock walls.

Waltho isn’t the only person concerned about the design. His neighbor, Hank Cotton, said he wouldn’t have bought the house if he knew the storm shelter was so flawed.

“They basically said it was a tornado room and we would be safe and would not have any worries,” Cotton said. “Now, I don’t know. I can tell you my confidence has definitely dwindled.”

Waltho said he’s not sure that he would even use it in a serious storm.

“If I have enough time to get in the truck and get my wife and my dogs, we will go somewhere else,” Waltho said.

Hultine doesn’t understand that type of thinking.

“Are you kidding me?” he responded when asked if he would use the room during a storm. “It is an eight-inch concrete box with a steel door. I absolutely would be in there. I would be in there in a heartbeat.”

What’s less clear is whether future owners of a Hultine home will be in such a room. Between the new regulations and the complaints he’s received about these units, which were the first storm rooms he built, he doubts he’ll build another one.

“I’m beside myself now because I think we probably would have been better off not building anything at all,” Hultine said. “That’s sad, when you really stop to think about it.”


JerryStubbs 2 years, 10 months ago

I have a basement, and I consider it one of the most valuable parts of my house. I know they cost something, but I think they're worth the expense.


JerryStubbs 2 years, 10 months ago

I have a $100 steel door on my garage, and I'd say it would stand up to most debris like tree limbs etc.

I think some of the natural disasters in the last year have changed a lot of people opinions about what is good enough protection, or maybe sometimes the question is: what kind of protection do we need?

Even if you have a $2000 door, It's probably not a good idea to put your head up to the door to listen to a raging tornado outside.

I wonder if the homeowner had been given a choice between a $200 steel door and a $2000 FEMA approved setup, which would he have picked?

I hope the guy didn't get charged for a $2000 FEMA approved door. If he did, of course he should be compensated. If not, I think he could upgrade.


Kat Christian 2 years, 10 months ago

when I moved to Lawrence,KS I could not believe the amount of houses built without basements being it is in tornado alley. Either the town doesn't really care about its residents or they are just plain stupid. What part of tornado danger do they not get? At least build a storm shelter under ground for each home how big of a space can that take? Even I would NEVER believe in a minute that safe rooms would save you from an F3/4 tornado. No way in H$)). Either KS folks are so complacent or dumb why would you even think a safe room above ground would be safe? The only way to survive an F3 or F4 tornado is underground. These safe rooms are just another way for develpers to con people out of their money and make them think they are safe. Just like in those Habitat for Humanity homes they say they built a safe room/master room closet - bull there is no way those rooms would be safe enough to protect a family from an F3/4 tornado. There needs to be underground safe rooms built - in that a family can assure they will be safe from a tornado. I hate developers they are such liars.


LivedinLawrence4Life 2 years, 10 months ago

I think Hultine made a good, yet affordable effort to offer something safer than the typical slab home with no concrete walls at all. If other builders are offering a better solution in Lawrence, I have not seen it yet. If I add a storm shelter to my home, I would expect to pay more if I demanded top of the line versus reasonable and affordable. To me, it seems those townhomes are affordable for what you get. Couldn't those homeowners add more concrete and steel if that makes them feel better in a storm?


devobrun 2 years, 10 months ago

No SomePeople, it is not ignorance of construction. It is an institutionalized predilection toward that which is their own idea. "Yes Bobby, you are correct", says the teacher who was just told that 1+1=14.
They cannot be wrong, because they make the rules. When a tornado comes along, they invent reality again. It is systemic, SomePeople. It is part of our modern society. It exists in denying who commits crimes. It exists in what causes cancer. It exists in science, law, feelings, is called politics. Complain and let the "experts" solve their problems. Above I gave a solution, in detail, of how I would solve the problem. It is really a lifestyle. Solve your own darn problems.

Nope SomePeople, people are looking for their app, their phone number, their help. I wouldn't hire a single person on this board.

It has been this way for years. Useless wimps....complaining that somebody oughta do something. But they have no clue what to do for themselves. And when confronted with the concept of being a person of action......forget it.


SomePeople 2 years, 10 months ago

I have read, read, and read again thread after thread and never has one compelled me to actually sign in and comment until now. I do not even know where to begin, but I will try to start from the beginning.

First and foremost, the builder did absolutely nothing in violation of any code that was in force at the time of construction. As a matter of fact, he was in the small minority of builders who would rather forego a portion of their profits to assist in two things; the sale of his property and keeping future owners safe(r). To ridicule one builder for making a concerted effort at a "safe room/storm shelter" and to let the multitudes of other builders that were simply throwing up stick framed,slab sprawl is completely insane.

People need to step back and realize the larger picture before ripping someone a new one in a public forum. Instead of leading anyone to believe that Mike Hultine actually put a product that is "sub par" in any form on the market, maybe you should first educate yourself as to what the other builders were providing for safety? The safest place in most slab houses that have been built in the past twenty years would most likely be a centered bathroom inside the tub. Unfortunately, construction quality has historically been low enough in this town that the chance of a owning a tub that can stop ANY flying projectile is slim to none.

In response to the owner who is complaining about his "shelter"...Sit in your house instead of using the shelter. The odds should be a ton better for survival according to your ridiculous logic. I have personally seen the construction quality of the units in question and I can assure you that I would much rather be inside one of the storm shelters than in one of the basements in the units built by some company out of KC just to the east (same development).

This entire topic stinks of a slow news day and many, many people who are uneducated about construction in this town. I think someone stated that if an EF-5 is heading your way you might as well not worry about what is surrounding you...They are spot on!

....Some People


Centerville 2 years, 10 months ago

Ron, to clarify: I wasn't questioning the number of people killled in tornaodoes. I would like to know the number of people in 'safe rooms' killed by tornadoes. Before the LJW gets away with inventing an unfounded fear.


Gandalf 2 years, 10 months ago

I would think that fraud would reqire an intent to deceive.

Any safe room is far better than none and none can be guarateed against everything. Just ask sadam hussien or bin laden.

People should learn to grow up and realize that when you are given a birth certificate it automatically comes with a future death cedrtificate. When it comes to mother nature vs man, mother nature will always win.


Richard Payton 2 years, 10 months ago

Built better than a mobile home. Next purchase might be a steel home by Kodiak 1-800-278-0888. Even those won't hold up to an EF-5 tornado.


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 10 months ago

Here's a good statistic:

Number of people killed by guns in the United States in 2004: 29,569

Percentage breakdown by US gun deaths in 2004, by type:

  • 16,750 suicides (56% of all U.S. gun deaths)
  • 11,624 homicides (40%)
  • 649 unintentional shootings, 311 from legal intervention and 235 from undetermined intent (4%).

That averages out to 81 people dying everyday from guns.

So, while considering the purchase of a home with a safe room, you should also be out shopping for a bullet proof vest because in the year 2004, 12,273 people were killed by guns (excluding suicides), versus less than 100 deaths due to tornados in a typical year.


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 10 months ago

I live on the second floor of an apartment complex, and I have no tornado shelter to go to at all. But I'm not worried, because I grew up around them. I've seen them, been under them, and been sleeping when one passed by two blocks from my home.

And, I've seen a small car that had been run over and completely crushed by a semi truck only about a minute before. That was amazing because after the accident, the car was less than 12 inches tall.

So, tornados somewhat interest me, they're like rattlesnakes were where I grew up. Treat them with respect, don't do anything stupid, and chances are very good that you'll never have a problem.

But when I'm driving I'm watching closely every second, because unlike tornados or rattlesnakes, car accidents don't give you any notice.


Liberty275 2 years, 10 months ago

The moral: don't try to help people, bang them hard retail. Humans aren't worth helping unless they are prepared to fork out top dollar.


Scott Morgan 2 years, 10 months ago

I think the film of all the horrific storm damage has everybody thinking about safety. The Wismos are certainly chatting about it.

A bit complicated, and have seen many of these concrete rooms on homes being built. Especially around Baldwin. On the other hand always before taking occupancy a potential buyer has to think clearly during a walk through.

At lease in my case, my "RIP" father in law acting as watch dog would have noticed this. On the other hand buying a new home is exciting and leads to making mistakes. My pops in law noticed a gleaming brand new super duper AC system brand name on t.v. commercial type was woefully inadequate. I was bragging about it to my buddies and would have never thought to look. (the builder changed it out, but with a cheaper brand name)

Unfortunately I think Hultine had great intentions, but is liable. Life lesson learned.


boxers_or_briefs 2 years, 10 months ago

I'm just in shock that Cornerstone would even attempt to build a safe room in the first place. That would be less profit for them.


kansanbygrace 2 years, 10 months ago

A basement is a very, very good and affordable improvement. Any good quality home built in the midwest will have one. Put the mechanicals there, put the laundry there, put the pingpong table and the hobby shop there. Enclose a corner, equip it just as Devobrun described it above, use it as a pantry and a safe room. It's one of the most cost-effective ways to upgrade your home.


devobrun 2 years, 10 months ago

Look here Jeff Waltho: It's on sale

Plus more sale items

So for $300 bucks a person, you could just tie yourself down and ride it out with nothing more than a broken bone or two. Otherwise you are covered with concrete walls, a bulletproof jacket and a helmet.

Here's the real message, Jeff. Quit whining and do something. Build a blast wall out of concrete. Wear a helmet. And if a Cat 5 tornado hits you directly...pray because you just got really unlucky. Cat 5 tornadoes are rare. Flying timber which just happens to blow through your door on your concrete shelter are rare. and then if they hit you where you don't have a helmet or bulletproof jacket.....well heck Jeff, it was your time to go, that's all there is to it.


Centerville 2 years, 10 months ago

This story is all chicken-little. No facts, not one reliable example. Just hysteria. I suppose it's too much trouble to do any research, even with Joplin just one state over.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 10 months ago

Jafs is right-- if the builder billed it as something that it's not, if it's not quite fraud, it's most certainly unethical.

And wissmo, this so-called safe room didn't meet any sort of code for "safe rooms," and anyone using it is potentially vulnerable should they use it in severe weather. Also, simply swapping out the door would not fix the problem. The door jams and doors, as well as all the interior walls, would have to be considerably upgraded to make these truly "safe rooms."


Scott Morgan 2 years, 10 months ago

Am I reading this wrong, the builder out of the goodness of his heart built what meets code as a safe room.

Then he gets hammered. I've have built three homes over the years. If I had ordered a safe room and it came with a reasonable door I would have been happy. If I wasn't simply trade the door with the builder, or buy a better one.

Good grief!


dwowsers 2 years, 10 months ago

come on. the advertisement says something, and so you are excused from due diligence? i'm all for full disclosure on the seller's part, but the buyer is also responsible.


melott 2 years, 10 months ago

This article says: "...until recently, there have been no agreed-upon national standards that must be met before a unit can be called a storm shelter or safe room." This is incorrect. Detailed standards and building plans have been available from FEMA for at least ten years. See


melott 2 years, 10 months ago

This article says: "...until recently, there have been no agreed-upon national standards that must be met before a unit can be called a storm shelter or safe room." This is incorrect. Detailed standards and building plans have been available from FEMA for at least ten years. See


Nikki May 2 years, 10 months ago

While these shelters might not be perfect, they are more than many of us have. We have our laundry room. All the normal plaster with a normal interior door. I would say in a pinch, it's better than nothing. But, yeah, maybe don't call it a storm shelter any more so if anything does happen, you won't get sued over it.


greenquarter 2 years, 10 months ago

I call b.s. The bottom line is that Hultine was trying to make as much money as he could--perfectly understandable, but own up to it, at least. That he's trying to pass himself off as some sort of hero is laughable, especially with his self-pitying comments about how nobody appreciates his benificence. What do they want him to do, build it up to code or something? Well, YES. I agree that houses with slab foundations need a safe place to go, but better would be to build just one community safe room for a set number of residences that meets these standards, and the families could share on the rare occasions they actually need to use the room. If you're going to do something "good," don't do it half-a**ed. The money spent on these doors would be well worth avoiding this sort of bad publicity.


BigPrune 2 years, 10 months ago

Wow. Some protection is better than no protection. The realtor selling the house should've said it was a "safe room" and left it at that, because most intelligent people know that tornado shelters need to be built in a specific manner in order to be called a tornado shelter. An F5 tornado is going to eat your lunch regardless.


appleaday 2 years, 10 months ago

Sounds like the builder just wants to sell something that sounds safe but when it comes down to being accountable and having something that meets a certain set of standards, not so much.


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 10 months ago

In 2000, 40 people were killed by tornados in the United States.

That same year, 41,821 people were killed in the United States by automobile accidents.

Be afraid. Be very afraid!


Commenting has been disabled for this item.