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Kerry Cooper, of Rossville, has been a self-employed home remodeler for 30 years, but the April 27 tornadoes prompted him to get into a new line of work.
"In this area we've never had to face that kind of damage," he said. "I just started searching the Internet for something to offer."
What he found was tornado shelters. He's now a dealer for ShelterPlus from Montgomery, Ala.
Cooper offers two underground shelters: One is designed to be installed inside a home that's under construction; the other is intended to be buried outside in the yard.
The underground shelter is a fiberglass sphere that holds up to 12 people, Cooper says. Its interior has a smooth bathtublike finish with a carpeted floor and two ventilation pipes are near the door, which is constructed out of steel.
"When you're sitting on the bench [inside the shelter], you're about 4 feet underground," Cooper said.
The shelter is constructed of materials approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he says, and has a price tag of close to $7,000, including installation.
Cooper said he has been marketing the shelter by taking it on the road. He displayed it on the side of a highway for a few days and he also towed it to a Walmart parking lot.
There, he talked with several people about the shelter, including some folks from Ringgold, where eight lives were lost and hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in the April storms
"Some said they wished they'd had one before the tornadoes hit," Cooper said.
While there has been a lot of interest in the shelters, so far he hasn't made a sale, he said.
In contrast, the owner of ShelterPlus said his business has spiked since the April 27 outbreak.
"Oh Lord, yes," Barry Childers said. "I had 573 emails in three days" from potential customers.
Childers said his company supplies tornado shelters to dealers in more than a dozen states and that, by far, the largest increase in demand is in Alabama
"We can't make them fast enough to cover the orders," Childers said.
On April 27, 39 people were killed and more than 600 injured in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., by an EF4 tornado that carved a mile-wide path for about 80 miles. A total of 241 people were killed in the state during the tornado outbreak.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said this week that he's willing to discuss a requirement that mobile home parks must be built with tornado shelters.
"If you go in a mobile home park ... you ought to have a safe place," he said during a tornado safety meeting held Monday in Tuscaloosa.
Much of the meeting focused on adding storm-proof safe rooms to homes that are being rebuilt or repaired in coming months.
In Ringgold, Ga., Ed Cagle, owner of Cagle Development, said he has sold 35 of fiberglass shelters called The Protector, which also are installed underground. He bought the company that makes the shelters, he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week, and he has gone from five employees to 19 to meet the demand.
The cost of the Protector is about $9,800 to fully install, he said.
Cooper said he is running into folks who don't even want to pay the $7,000 or so it takes for his shelter.
"One guy was interested in it but thought it was a little too much," he said. "They're thinking [that] instead of buying one, they're hoping we're not going to have any more storms."
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