Shelters in High Demand After Oklahoma Tornadoes

A septic pumping and installation business in Tornado Alley works to keep residents safe
Shelters in High Demand After Oklahoma Tornadoes
Vets Septic Office Manager Alesia Gardner emerges from a sloped front storm shelter. Owner Will Frye says 6-foot-wide, 8-foot-long storm shelters with a sloped front are the most common. (Photo by Brett Deering)

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Will Frye, owner of Vets Septic Service in Oklahoma City, has seen a lot in his 23 years of business, especially when it comes to the wrath of storms and tornadoes that can rock the region. 

And with legendary events like the powerful tornado that shook neighboring Moore, Okla., on May 20, Frye is seeing his storm shelter business grow. Still, while it’s good for business and comforting to be able to offer such safety to neighbors, it’s hard to see the demand grow when it often may be too late. 

“Now everybody wants them right now,” Frye says. “They wished they would have put them in sooner.” But the 100 or so calls he’s getting a week for storm shelters in the tornado’s aftermath (compared with the usual five weekly) don’t surprise him, unfortunately. 

Now he’s working 24/7 installing the shelters as storm season continues. “If they wait until now to install, it’ll be 30 days before we get them in,” he notes, adding that most people wait until storm season or shortly after to think about the protective shelters. 

Fortunately for Frye, 49, his business and home remained safe. “The tornado travelled about a mile and a half from our shop,” he says. “We got lucky.” 

The recent storm killed 24 and injured almost 400. According to published reports, with wind speeds of more than 200 mph, the 1.3-mile-wide tornado swept a 17-mile path, destroying two elementary schools. 

Shelters are helpful, affordable

Tornadoes in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area — home to around 1 million residents — can be deadly. But Frye notes that not all homeowners install storm shelters, which are self-contained, prefabricated underground capsules with a hatch that homeowners use to escape severe storms and tornadoes. 

Throughout his service area, about a 50-mile radius around Oklahoma City, he estimates that only about 20 percent of homeowners have storm shelters. Most homes in Oklahoma don’t have basements due to the high water table, so these shelters take the place of basements as a safe place to wait out a storm. 

Made of precast concrete reinforced with fiber and steel rebar, the shelters are produced by Hausner’s Precast Concrete Products, the same company that manufactures Vets’ septic tanks. Frye says 6-foot-wide, 8-foot-long storm shelters with a sloped front are the most common. Baseline price for an installed shelter is $2,750, with some additional costs, such as permits. 

Frye has had to use his own shelter three times over the past 10 years. In 1999, the biggest tornado ever recorded wound through the area, and the storm shelters Frye had installed were put to the test. And when a major storm hit in May 2010, Frye lost a ranch house, three barns and more than 1,000 trees, but no one was home, so no injuries were sustained. 

Vets was one of the first in his area to begin offering storm shelters more than two decades ago, and his company has installed about 400 shelters over the last few years. Still, septic pumping and installation are the main services offered by the business. 

“We now install all septic systems that are applicable in Oklahoma, including drip systems, lagoons and lateral lines. We also install evapotranspiration absorption (ETA) systems,” he says. Even though he’s busy now, storm shelters make up only 15 to 20 percent of his business. 

But amid the possibility of raging seasonal storms, Frye remains proud to be an Oklahoma native — adding that Forbes magazine recently touted Oklahoma City as the fourth best place to live in the United States, citing the low cost of living, thriving economy and 4 percent unemployment rate.


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