How To Live Safe On Tornado Alley

The last few years have been some of the most active tornado seasons in history.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there were at least 1,691 twisters in the U.S. in 2011, and an estimated 550 fatalities, making it the fourth-deadliest year on record.

High death tolls and the fear that killer tornadoes could strike with little warning have many homeowners literally scrambling for cover. The storm shelter business is booming and there are a variety of options that can offer protection from even the most powerful storms.

Shelter industry booming due to fear of storms

Ken Nix, co-owner of TSW Storm Shelters in Collierville, Tenn., says business has almost tripled in the past three years. TSW installed 266 shelters in 2011 and is on track to exceed that number in 2012. Nix says that fear has been a main driver in prompting homeowners to install shelters.

Read: Do you have to pay your mortgage if your house is destroyed?

"As the sirens start going off, our phones start ringing. It's all tied to the weather. When these big storms start hitting, people start thinking about installing a shelter again," says Nix.

Most shelters start at an average of $3,000 to $6,000. TSW's smaller shelter can hold six to eight people and currently runs $5,400 including installation.

Many manufacturers are reporting waiting periods due to a surge in demand. Steve Mader, president of Crest Precast Concrete in La Crescent, Minn., says his company recently started producing precast concrete units to meet the growing market for residential shelters.

"More frequent and severe storms have people looking for shelters, and we see that because traffic to our website is booming. People are looking for something affordable to protect their family," says Mader.

While many homeowners head to their basements during tornadoes, basements don't always offer the best protection. Experts say that unless the basement was specifically built as a shelter and secured with concrete and reinforced steel, there's a good chance the home could collapse into the basement itself.

Various types of shelters available

Tornado shelters come in various sizes, shapes and materials. The most common are steel and reinforced-concrete boxes that either sit above ground anchored to a slab or are placed underground. They typically hold six to eight people on a bench in a small confined area and have ventilation holes and a solid steel door.

TSW's shelters are usually placed below ground in a garage. Nix says it's a six-hour process for his crew to punch through the slab, drop the shelter in place and seal it up with concrete. When it's done, all that's left is a small door in the garage floor. Homeowners can even park their vehicle on top of it.