Safe Room Stories

Every spring, just as the storm clouds begin to gather in the sky and the warning sirens start to wail in the distance, Larry Mitchell knows what will follow. After the downpour and the mighty winds and roaring thunder and noisy hail have cleared out and left behind fallen branches and damaged homes, his office phone will start ringing for a product that makes up just a small percentage of his concrete business – storm shelters.

“I tell people all the time, ‘I’ll sell you this but I hope you really don’t ever need it,’” Mitchell said with a laugh. “It’s like insurance. It’s something you hope you never need, but having it gives you peace of mind.”

Mitchell has been in the concrete business all his life, and been a member of the Alabama Concrete Industries Association for many years. His father, Eugene Mitchell, started Mitchell Concrete in Saginaw just south of Birmingham in 1956. The Mitchell’s started out making concrete pipe for hand-dug wells, and later road and driveway pipe and septic tanks for both residential and commercial. As a child, the younger Mitchell spent his free time and summers shoveling gravel, sand and cement for concrete mixtures.

His only time away from the business was when he served two years with the Navy Seabees, the Construction Battalions (CBs) of the United States Navy. Even then, his work focused on what he knew best – concrete. The Seabees have a long history of building bases, roads, bridges and airstrips, and Mitchell played a role in that growth. “I poured a lot of concrete in Vietnam,” he recalls.

After his tour of duty, Mitchell returned to his family concrete business and began to expand beyond the usual septic tanks. He was beginning to get requests for storm shelters and decided to explore his options. He began by modifying septic tanks, equipping them with more reinforcing and thicker lids, and cutting out doorways. He eventually had a form built into which he would pour concrete for the shelter’s walls, roof and ceiling. As interest grew, Mitchell eventually added two more molds, offering a total of three different storm shelter design options.

His best selling shelter is an in-ground shelter. It is set partially in the ground and covered with dirt. It can even be landscaped to help disguise it on property. The interior cavity is 6 feet wide, 10 feet long and 6 feet 2 inches tall. Stairs are located just inside the door for easy access.

A second design is the in-bank shelter, which works best in a hill or embankment. These walk-in shelters have a cavity that is six feet wide, 8 ½ feet long and 6 feet 2 inches tall.

Porch shelters are more discrete, and as the name implies, are built under porches or decks. They work best for mobile homes, built right under the decking, and provide quick and easy access. The cavity of these shelters is 6 feet wide, 8 ½ feet tall and 54 inches tall. It also has a ladder for access. Each shelter design can fit about 10 to12 people, and regardless of design or size, costs $2,000 plus tax. Mitchell wants to keep the price as low as possible so that the people who most need them – those who live in rural communities or mobile homes – can more easily afford them.

At his place of business, Mitchell pours concrete into the molds and delivers the shelters as a finished product to the customer. It is up to the customer or the subcontractor to install it in the ground or under a porch. He delivers shelters within a 50-mile radius of his business in Saginaw.

Storm shelters provide a great sense of security, but before someone buys one, some factors should be considered. First, know your risk for bad weather. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Wind Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University, Alabama experiences anywhere from one to 15 tornadoes per 1,000 square miles per year. The Birmingham area has a higher risk with 11-15 tornadoes reported; north Alabama is next with six to ten tornadoes reported, and south Alabama experiences the fewest with only one to five tornadoes reported each year. South Alabama is placed in a greater wind zone category (zone III – up to 200 miles per hour) because of its proximity to the Gulf Coast and the threat of hurricanes.

Just because you live in an area that experiences tornadoes or hurricanes doesn’t mean you will actually fall within the path of a bad storm. Shelters provide security in the event you do.

Storm shelters are most warranted if there are no other safe places you can go in your home or no area in your community to flee to quickly in the event of an emergency. Property size and topography will dictate which shelter is best. If cost is an issue, neighbors can consider going in together on a conveniently placed shelter.

The best storm shelters can hold up against strong winds and flooding. Mitchell has not sought FEMA approval for the shelters, meaning they have not been tested for wind or water resistance. Testing them would raise the price of the shelter, and Mitchell’s goal is to keep the shelters as cost-effective as possible for those who are most in need. He does apply a waterproof coating, makes the walls four to five inches thick, reinforces the unit with rebar, and uses a thick, steel door to cover the doorways.

He has sold “hundreds” of shelters through the years, but he’s quick to point out that shelters are hardly the mainstay of his business. Despite the low interest, Mitchell said he did try marketing the shelters once. He even added a fiberglass unit to the lineup. The fiberglass was far more expensive – averaging about $4,000 to $6,000 – and he sold very few units. The cost defeated Mitchell’s purpose in selling shelters in the first place, he said. “The people who need them most can’t afford them at that price.” Besides, he says, reinforced concrete makes a much stronger and secure shelter.

During that time, Mitchell paid to put an ad in The Yellow Pages and had a salesman who promised to boom the business. Mitchell was skeptical, but let the man try his best. He partnered with mobile home companies and builders. But Mitchell knew what the salesman had yet to learn – that sunny skies and positive attitudes don’t sell shelters. Storms do. And just as sure as a mighty storm one night would set his phone to ringing, once the threat of storms lifted, so did the worry on peoples’ minds.

Mitchell has yet to hear remarkable storm stories from one of the hundreds of people who have purchased shelters from him. It’s as if installing a storm shelter at one’s home almost guarantees the storm not to head that way, Mitchell laughed. No one wants storm damage, but at least those with shelter can have peace of mind that there is a safe place where they can go in the event of a storm.

“It really surprises me, that there is not a demand for storm shelters,” Mitchell said. “The older generations are more interested in it, but the younger ones, they’re not as scared, apparently.”




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