This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

In the wake of tornadoes ravaging Oklahoma, a storm shelter company is heading to Washington, D.C., in search of financial assistance — and has hired a prominent lobbyist to help

Del City-based OZ SafeRooms hired firm McDermott, Will & Emery to press the federal government on “storm shelter tax relief legislation,” according to documents filed this week with the U.S. Senate.

To date, there’s no bill pending in Congress this year that calls for tax breaks on residential storm shelters, although Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., introduced such legislation in 2011.
The bill died in committee. Federal tax breaks would ostensibly make OZ SafeRooms’s products more affordable to homeowners.

OZ SafeRooms has little Washington experience, as the company has never lobbied the federal government before and does not sponsor a federal political action committee, according to federal records.

The storm shelter company will, however, be represented by one of the larger lobby shops in Washington.

McDermott, Will & Emery earned nearly $1.4 million in lobbying income through the first three months of this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The firm has wide range of clients, including the pharmaceutical company Allergan, the Brewers Association and the Coalition for Rational and Fair Taxation.

Teddy Eynon, a partner at McDermott, Will & Emery, will personally lobby for OZ SafeRooms on Capitol Hill.

Prior to working at McDermott and several other lobbying outfits around Washington, Eynon served as deputy chief of staff to former Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., from 1999 to 2002, and as counsel to former Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., from 1997 to 1998.

A spokesman for OZ SafeRooms declined comment on the company’s lobbying activity. Eynon did not return several requests for comment.

On its website, OZ SafeRooms is outspoken about the durability of its storm shelters,  displaying several photos of its poured concrete structures that it says survived a “direct hit in Moore, Oklahoma, with no damage.” It describes its shelters as “the world’s safest tornado protection.”

Two separate tornadoes cut through the Moore and El Reno in late May, claiming dozens of lives and injuring hundreds of others. The El Reno tornado is believed to be the widest twister ever observed, at about 2.6 miles across.

Inhofe’s 2011 storm shelter bill called for individuals to receive a federal tax deduction of up to $2,500 for the purchase, construction and installation of storm shelters.

Inhofe’s unsuccessful bill followed a series of tornadoes in Oklahoma in September 2011, and it’s unclear as to whether he plans to reintroduce it. A representative for Inhofe could not be reached for comment.

Following the latest tornado in Oklahoma, the mayor of Moore called for a new ordinance requiring all new homes to have reinforced storm shelters, which can cost anywhere from about $2,000 for a small underground shelter to more than $10,000 for a large, above-ground safe room.

In recent years, Oklahoma has channeled federal rebates of up to $2,000 to homeowners who install shelters that meet Federal Emergency Management Agency standards. The SoonerSafe Safe Room Rebate Program grants have gone to those who lived in or near areas damaged by tornadoes as well as to residents who signed up for a state lottery. In January 2012, about 500 rebates were provided.

Since the May tornadoes, demand for residential shelters has soared, with some shelter companies reporting they are booked out until January.

Oklahoma Watch contributed to this story.

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