State Program Offering Storm-Shelter Grants Doesn’t Target Low-Income Residents

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Clifton Adcock/Oklahoma Watch

One of many scenes of devastation in Moore.

Residential storm shelters are not cheap, and many low-income people in Oklahoma cannot afford them.

That is reinforced by the state’s policy of not offering shelter subsidies based on income or net worth. The grants, which are federal funds, have been given out instead to those who lived in or near official disaster areas or whose names were drawn in a lottery.

The state, under federal rules, also doesn’t offer the subsidies to landlords, which means that tenants, who often are low-income, will not have a shelter at home unless their landlord pays the entire cost. Many landlords don’t.

In the wake of the deadly tornado that cut a destructive swath through Moore on May 20, claiming 24 lives, the need for more residential shelters and the government’s role in providing them have garnered more attention.

Tom Bennett, president of a Tulsa safe room company and past president of the National Storm Shelters Association, estimates less than an eighth of Oklahoma’s 4 million residents have access to their own shelter during a tornado warning.

The biggest reason is price, he and others said.

The prices for residential shelters range from about $2,500 for a small garage cellar to more than $10,000 for a top-of-the-line, above-ground safe room. Ground-level safe rooms have reinforced walls built to withstand tornado and hurricane winds.

Bennett’s company sells above-ground safe rooms, certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that begin at $4,600. Shelters below ground generally begin around $2,500, and the price can quickly rise depending on the materials (steel or concrete), the size and the difficulty of installation. For instance, getting a backhoe into the backyard of an established neighborhood is often a problem and can lead to more costly options, such as the placement of a shelter in a home or garage.

After tornadoes shredded large parts of Moore and struck near Shawnee last week, consumers began blitzing shelter companies with calls, wanting to place orders. For people with lower incomes, that may not be good news. The spike in demand could lead to price bumps and fewer discounts as installers hustle to complete projects by paying workers overtime, Bennett said.

He said he doesn’t believe established companies are gouging people, that prices are mostly determined by the cost of materials and labor.

Jacklyn Brink-Rosen, a legislative assistant who has done research on bills aimed at promoting shelter awareness among home buyers, said shelter prices already are unaffordable for many people.

“I realize the prices vary from several thousand dollars on up, but how many Oklahomans can afford to pay those kinds of prices?” she said. “Something must be done to protect all Oklahomans.”

In 2011, Oklahoma established a new program in conjunction with FEMA to defray the cost of a storm shelter, using more than $1 million in federal money. The program, SoonerSafe Safe Room Rebate Program, followed earlier programs that included extending shelter aid to Moore residents who had lost homes in major tornadoes. SoonerSafe gave homeowners rebates of up to $2,000, or 75 percent, of the price tag for the purchase and installation of a storm shelter. Fourteen thousand homeowners applied; that number has since risen to more than 20,000.

Priority was given to residents whose homes were destroyed by tornadoes in 2011 in central, southeastern and northeastern Oklahoma; these had been given presidential disaster declarations. Other homeowners were given grants through a lottery. A total of about 500 grants were awarded.

The income levels of the homeowners are unknown because, unlike with programs such as SoonerCare (Medicaid) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare), SoonerSafe is not means-tested – that is, subsidies aren’t pegged to applicants’ income or assets. FEMA allows states to mean-test such grants if they want.

Even if a poor or working-class family wins a grant, they face another barrier: To get the rebate, they must first pay the full price of the shelter, then seek a reimbursement after it’s built. It can take four to eight weeks for the rebate check to be mailed.

Sometimes, homeowners are awarded a shelter grant but decide to back out because they cannot afford the up-front cost, said Keli Cain, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

Still, Oklahoma’s shelter-grant programs and similar community ones have helped bring shelters to thousands of Oklahomans. The state has received more than $57 million in federal money for 11,768 private and public shelters, more than any other state in the nation since 1999, said Albert Ashwood, director of the state emergency management department. He said Oklahoma has spent more than $15 million in private storm shelters since 1999.

The department has yet to decide how it will allocate shelter grants using federal disaster  aid stemming from the recent tornadoes. Cain said residents who lost homes in Moore and elsewhere would likely get priority.

Debra Hamil, 59, of Cashion, said the financial barrier to life-saving shelter is too high.
Hamil lost her grandsons – Ryan, 3, and Cole, 18 months – when a tornado near Piedmont ripped them from the arms of their pregnant mother, Catherine Hamil, on May 24, 2011. At the time, Catherine and her children were hunkered down in the bathtub of their home with only a mattress between them and the deadly twister. The four-year-old home did not have a storm shelter.

Since then, Debra Hamil has championed legislation that would require home sellers to disclose whether their home is equipped with a storm shelter and constructed to resist high winds. The purpose is to encourage buyers to consider storm protection when hunting  for homes. Two versions of the bill have thus far failed to pass the House and Senate.

“Everywhere I go I plead with people to get a storm shelter,’’ Hamil said. “But, of course, not everyone can afford one … I don’t like the government telling me what I can and can’t do, but I truly think this is different. Storm shelters should be required, certainly in new homes.”

She wonders whether the government could make low-interest loans available to help residents purchase a storm shelter.

“Payments could be something like $45 or $50 a month – the size of a grocery bill,” she said.

Storm-shelter mandates and government-backed loans might be a tough sell in a state where government involvement is often frowned upon. State officials are also concerned about spending and are wary of mandates that may cause home prices to rise.

Moore Mayor Glen Lewis said last week he would propose an ordinance that would require construction of reinforced shelters in every new home built in Moore, adding he was confident he could secure the four votes need on the six-member council.

Later that day, during a press conference with Gov. Mary Fallin, Lewis cautioned that the city still needed to talk to one of the homebuilders associations. He stressed that officials did not want to make homes unaffordable. “We don’t really want to force anybody to do it,” he added.

In the meantime, many families without shelters huddle in bathrooms and closets or seek refuge in neighbors’ shelters during tornado warnings.

Shannon and Angela Robidoux, of Moore, have considered buying a shelter.

“We’ve looked at them,” Shannon said. “We’ve been wanting to get one, but we can’t afford one.”

The May 20 tornado passed within five blocks of their house, where the family has lived for nine years. The couple was picking up two of their three children from Central Elementary School and took refuge in the school, which wasn’t hit.

Last year, when a tornado appeared to threaten Moore, Angela said she called the police to inquire where she and her family could find shelter. She said a police employee didn’t know.

“I called the police station to try and find a place to go, and there’s no place for anybody to go,” Angela said.

Oklahoma Watch reporter Clifton Adcock contributed to this story.