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

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.”