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James Weron climbs out of a tornado shelter Friday in Ooltewah. The storm shelter is called "The Protector" and can hold numerous people in case of a tornado. Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Americans always are concerned about safety, reasoned Ed Cagle, head of Cagle Development in Chattanooga.

That's why, after the spate of tornadoes that hit Ringgold, Ga., and Joplin, Mo., he bought the company that makes The Protector, a line of tornado shelters that can be installed underground.

"Every time people around here hear about a tornado watch, they're going to actually think about it," Cagle said. "Before Ringgold, a tornado watch meant that everybody would just go out on the porch and watch to see if a tornado popped up."

He's sold 35 of the fiberglass shelters since the disaster on April 27 and has increased the number of employees from five to 19 to ramp up production to 15 shelters per week.

The installation is simple: it's a one-piece unit with a bench seat and a shelf that he buries underground before surrounding it with concrete to secure it in place.

"You can put it anywhere in the yard. We even have one you can put under your garage," he said as a track hoe slowly lowered one of his high-end models into the yard of James and Estelle Harris.

James Harris decided he wanted one when the EF4 tornado that ripped through Ringgold and Apison passed within a few miles of their Ooltewah home.

"We hope we never need it, but if we need it, we got it," he said.

The shelter costs $9,800 to fully install, seats 12-15, and Estelle Harris plans to allow the neighbors to use the shelter if a tornado materializes over the area.

"Anybody who wants to get in there can get in there," she said.

Demand from homeowners like James and Estelle Harris has continued to outpace supply, Cagle said, so he's planning to beef the company up to 125 employees if it continues. And he's sure it will.

"In this area, 60 percent of the tornadoes that have hit since the 1800s have happened in the last four years," he said. "I just think we're going to have more."


For homeowners looking to spend a bit more for more underground protection, the options really open up.

A few national companies are targeting the Chattanooga area with products that guard against everything from a bad storm to a nuclear winter.

George Welhaf, president and sales manager of Green Eye Technology, distributes and installs self-sufficient shelters that start at $140,000 and run up to several million dollars.

One, dubbed the "Man Cave," features an exercise pool, theater, projected virtual windows, putting green, half court basketball, billiards and exercise equipment. It also contains several 6,000-gallon diesel tanks to power the generator that keeps the lights on, and an entry tunnel can protect several vehicles.

Like a secret base, the entrance can be concealed in a gazebo that features a spiral staircase and a decontamination station.

Sales have jumped 25 percent in the past year, he said, as consumers worry not just about tornadoes, but about chemical, biological and even nuclear incidents like Japan's Fukushima meltdown.

"We've seen a significant jump in sales since the tornado outbreaks, for sure," he said.

His least-expensive model can hold eight people and enough supplies to keep them alive for up to a year, independent of the power grid.

"You could almost maintain a community's existence out of one of our shelter systems while they rebuild," Welhaf said.

Depending on consumers' needs, he can scale a shelter from that 192-square-foot model to modular underground structures that can hold hundreds of residents for five years in relative comfort, isolated from whatever troubles exist on the surface.

Still, not everyone can afford a multimillion-dollar luxury bunker, he acknowledges.

"The first thing we ask people is, what are you trying to protect yourself and your family from? If you're just interested in getting something in the ground, I encourage them to look at less-expensive systems," he said. "I'd hate for them to be saving up for one of our cellars and have a tornado come through."