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Tornado shelters dominate Joplin's rebuilding plans

JOPLIN, Mo. -- Lacy Dean and her husband, Jake, were watching the storm on television as they were sitting down for dinner on May 22.  When the tornado warning sirens sounded, they gathered Camryn and Blake, their two young children, and Lacy’s mother, Brenda, and headed to the tornado shelter that was partially sunk into their back yard.  They were the only family in their neighborhood that had one. 

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Seven-year-old Camryn Dean sits on top of her family's tornado shelter with her brother Blake, 9, and her mother Lacy (right) and grandmother Brenda Blalock, Wednesday, Aug. 17, in Joplin, Mo. The Deans survived the tornado that destroyed their Joplin neighborhood by hunkering down in the shelter. "We walked out without a single scratch on us," she says.

As the storm approached, Lacy, who says she’s normally the first one in, stood in the open doorway of the shelter. “I didn’t think it was going to be that bad” she said. “I thought we’d come out 10 minutes later and sit back down to dinner.”  The rain started coming down hard, so she closed the square, steel door and descended the short ladder to join her family in the 6-by-8-foot concrete bunker. 

“Then the wind started picking up,” she said. Pieces of bark started falling through the two small vents on the top of the shelter, followed by ashes and still-glowing coals from the charcoal grill  she used to cook dinner.  The family hunkered down in the safety of the shelter, listening to the tornado churning over their heads. “The door rattled, we thought that it might go, “ Dean said, “But everything held.”

When it was over, Jake climbed the ladder, opened the door and looked outside. “It’s gone,” he said. “The house?” asked his mother in law. “The neighborhood,” he answered. 

The Deans walked away from the tornado without a scratch.  Others weren’t so lucky.  One woman on the next block was one of 160 people that lost their lives.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

FEMA wouldn't let people occupy their temporary housing units near the Joplin airport until safe rooms, like this one were installed.

If you drive around Joplin today, you’ll see new, even bigger tornado shelters sitting outside schools, fire departments and temporary housing units.  These above-ground units are called “safe rooms,” and unlike the in-ground tornado shelters, they’re handicap accessible and can generally hold more people.  There are 37 such units parked just outside Joplin’s new, albeit temporary, high school and they have enough capacity to hold 1,200 people in the event of another tornado. FEMA says it has installed 67 shelters at six different Joplin schools at a cost of $3.3 million.

Why the sudden onslaught of shelters in a town where before there were so few, and none at the schools?  “Safe rooms are always a good idea. This is part of our housing mission. We didn’t let people move into the temporary housing units until we put the safe rooms in,” says FEMA external affairs specialist Crystal Payton. Looking at the schools that were destroyed by the tornado, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened had the students been sitting in the hallways, heads between their knees and hands over their heads. 

The physical safety is not the only benefit to providing safe havens from potential tornados. “It’s psychological security to have these things sitting out here. It means you have a safe place to go,” says Marcus Spade, a public affairs specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers. “Especially after you’ve been through what these people have been through, losing their homes. Most of them were probably in their homes when the storm was going. I know if I experienced something like that I’d feel pretty good knowing I had a storm shelter within a one-minute walk of where I was.” 

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Aaron Miller, owner of Midwest Storm Shelters, shows off a safe room he installed in a new house.

Aaron Miller owns Midwest Storm Shelters, a local company that builds and installs residential tornado shelters and safe rooms. He installed the shelter at the Dean’s home. The shelters are cast in two pieces and assembled on-site.  One of his 6-by-8-foot (interior) 13,000-pound storm shelters will set you back $2,500 installed.  “It’s cheap life insurance, “ says Miller, whose business has taken off. “I've installed more than one hundred units since the tornado,” he says.  For comparison, he had installed only 30 in the five-month period before the storm. 

When the Deans were installing their shelter back in 2005, Lacy says, the next-door neighbor’s wife was jealous.  Her husband “thought we were crazy for putting one in,” she says. “He didn’t want to dig up his yard.” After the storm, the Deans bought that neighbor’s empty lot and plan to rebuild their home on it. “The tornado shelter will be the first thing we put in,” Dean says, “because it’s the last thing we came out of.”

More from msnbc.com's reporting trip to Joplin:

Photoblog: Tornado 'helps' couple downsize

Photoblog: After tornado's harsh lesson, Joplin's child survivors return to school

Story: Joplin students head back to a new high-tech high school, in the mall

Slideshow: Joplin, before and after tornado cleanup