These are just a handful of the items that Arkansas Money & Politics readers say they keep closeby and in mind during severe weather season.
• Bicycle helmets
• Power banks
• Storm shelters
• Pet crates
• Bottled water
While many businesses were left devastated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, one business market that was unscathed in terms of need was the severe weather preparedness-and-recovery business.
Since 2012, Arkansas has experienced the wrath of 265 tornados causing a total of 22 fatalities and 308 injuries. These injuries and deaths were caused by flooding, high winds and straight-line winds, debris, hail and lightning. Victims over the 10 years have ranged in age from infants to 76.
Every year, tornado-producing severe weather has become increasingly worse in the Natural State, with 2020 proving to be the worst year for tornadoes to date, according to Dennis Cavanaugh, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock.
“In 2020, Arkansas had 45 official tornadoes, the strongest of which was an EF3 that left Jonesboro shaken in late March,” he said.
Cavanaugh spends many weekends and evenings training and equipping the public with the tools needed to be an informed storm spotter. Cavanaugh currently serves as the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service, but he started his career in 2005 as a forecaster in the NWS weather forecast office in Topeka, Kansas. He moved on to be a lead forecaster at the Dallas/Fort Worth office before joining the Little Rock forecast office in January 2016.
As of the first of May, Arkansas had seen three tornadoes in 2021, but the state’s yearly average is 33. However, May is the height of tornado season, and Arkansas is settled in a tornado-prone region.
As tornado season approaches, and with storms worsening over the last decade, the business behind severe-weather preparedness has significantly increased.
In 1999, Jim Garner sat attentively in front of his television outside of Cabot, hanging on to each word the meteorologist uttered. An F3 tornado was just beginning what would become an eight-mile path. It was 1,000 yards wide and would go on to do hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage and kill several people including a 2-month-old infant. But at the moment, a likely tornado looked to be headed for his house.
Garner’s wife at the time was gone with the only vehicle, so Garner called his brother, Don. But Don was some ways away, and damage already done in the area made it hard to traverse the rural roads. Garner had no choice but to wait out the storm. Miraculously, the tornado went over Garner’s house, on its way to barrelling through the southwest side of Beebe, but the feelings of fear and helplessness had branded themselves into Garner’s mind. Later that year, he founded Cozy Caverns Storm Shelters, which now has offices in Cabot, Austin and Ward.
“After that I thought, ‘No, I’ve got to have a storm shelter.’ A friend and I found these fiberglass ones over in Oklahoma. And we drove out there one day to look at them, and we saw all these steel storm shelters sitting around,” Garner recalled.
He said the steel models were far more efficient than their older counterparts.
“I’m used to the big hump-in-the-yard eyesores. But these new steel ones were really cool. So, me and my brother both bought one and put one in the ground. And I started thinking, ‘Well, if we both wanted something better, you know, for the protection of our family, maybe others might too.’”
Garner returned home and assembled a group of welders, who took their basic idea of steel storm shelters and widened the staircases while adding more benches and more structural support. The staircases in Garner’s storm shelters are offset from the main rooms so they don’t take up any room inside the shelter. They also have non-slip tape with a glow-in-the-dark, reflective yellow strip to guide customers inside.
The shelters have bench seating around both sides and across the back, along with a safety handrail and a 14-inch turbine. Garner has sold more than 950 just in Arkansas and has sold to customers in 25 states since 1999. He continues to improve his models as people offer insight and advice, such as the improvement of handicap accessibility. His storm shelters have been in high demand, and Garner said that he is currently working through 14 weeks of backlog. Plus, he plans to offer above-ground safe rooms at some point in the future.
“I don’t want to have extra help because that can sacrifice quality. We tried that one time, and we were having to go back and fix their mess up. So, I just decided it’s best to keep our own quality people,” Garner explained. “And if people have to wait a little bit longer, it’s because they’re getting the quality of shelter that I want to provide and what they’re actually looking for.”
With over 20 years of storm-prevention business expertise, Garner has been able to make a few observations.
“Our orders normally pick up around February and go on through almost August now,” Garner said. “As far as the weather and tornado activity, I think the weather and tornado alley has moved over to the east more. In fact, Arkansas is right dead-center now — it’s not so much in Oklahoma as it used to be.”
Garner also has observations about his customer base.
“Our customers’ age span normally is between 30 and 50 years old,” he said. “For the most part, I think the younger generation has yet to maybe get the full effect and see the devastation that a tornado can do, and I think the older people have the feeling that they’re invincible now that they’ve lived this long.”
Maria Hahn, the business development and sales director with STORMBOX, a storm preparedness company covering the southeast, made similar statements.
“Over the last decade we have seen a significant increase in storm occurrences and severity. This increase has created a noticeable uptick in the market of storm shelters and, as such, has driven a need for more standards within the industry to ensure quality of products,” Hahn said. “Naturally the market surges in spring as we face tornado season and in summer as we go into hurricane season. After these seasons pass people tend to put storm safety on the back burner since the immediate need is not as great, but we would all be better served if the planning was year round.”
Alisa Smith is the sales manager with Tornado Shelter Systems Inc. in Beebe. The company was founded when her husband, Jim Smith, purchased the manufacturing business from a good friend and began Tornado Shelter Systems with their sons 14 years ago. Smith firmly believes that action should be taken by all Arkansans to prepare for severe weather events.
“You should not lose a life because of a tornado,” Smith said. “We see this as a service company for our state.”
Tornado Shelter Systems sells above- and below-ground storm shelters and panic rooms, complete with bulletproofing if needed. The company uses steel from Nucor, an Arkansas-based company.
Smith sees various motivating factors in her sales.
“Older people usually have more income and will see the value. Younger couples with children see the value in the above-ground shelters because they can take the shelters with them should they move, so it can be a one-time purchase since they last forever,” she explained. “The above-ground shelters can also be used for clients in wheelchairs.”
She noted that the above-ground shelters are also used by rural clients who don’t have access to public shelters and clients with elderly or disabled people in their homes.
Smith emphasized that regardless of whether customers are urban or rural, young or old, more and more Arkansans are taking notice of the shifts in severe weather.
Of course, more severe weather patterns have led to an increase in the repair business as well.
Chris Brimhall is the property manager with Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company of Arkansas. Farm Bureau was founded more than 70 years ago, and its insurance companies are among the largest writers of property and casualty insurance in the state. Insurance products that the company provides include home, auto, farm, inland marine and general liability insurance. But over the last decade as storms have intensified, Brimhall said some areas of business have picked up more than others.
“Over the last decade, we’ve seen an average of five severe-weather events per year with losses in excess of $3 million each,” Brimhall said. “We saw seven such events in 2020 and have experienced three so far this year.”
Brimhall said he’s noticed a variety in precautions taken, depending on where customers live.
Rural areas tend to have more stand-alone, in-ground storm shelters due to older homes and older residents. Urban areas with younger residents and newer construction tend to have more safe rooms and storm shelters built into garage floors, he said.
Brimhall noted that the reasons people invest in storm shelters run the gamut from protection against severe weather to prior experience with tornadic events, as well as the increased number of severe weather events, newer cost-effective options and an increase in property value.
As weather becomes more severe in the Natural State, it’s crucial that Arkansans have a plan long before the skies get dark. This means preparing before the storm so less time is spent repairing after it.
Arkansas severe-weather experts share their tips of what to do and what not to do in the event of a tornado warning.
Jim Garner, Cozy Caverns Storm Shelters:
• “If you think there’s going to be severe weather, keep your ear on the radio and your eye on the radar. Stay at home, but if you happen to be outdoors and in the path of a tornado, get in a ditch and cover your head. Additionally, it would be worth investing in a football helmet for your severe weather kit. Know where your public shelters are and use them,” Smith advises.
• “People try to go out and about if they think there’s going to be severe weather. Many people try to take shelter in department stores when severe weather hits. But you’ll notice that there are a lot of structural beams that hold the roof up. This, and an overpass, are two of the worst places to be.”
Chris Brimhall, Arkansas Farm Bureau:
• “Don’t take any chances. Don’t go outside just to ‘take a quick look.’ Stay away from windows, and don’t try to leave in a vehicle.”
• “People say to go to the southwest corner of the house, but this isn’t always the best answer.” Other pieces of bad advice include opening windows to ‘relieve the pressure’ in the house, taking shelter under an overpass and trying to outrun a tornado.