Originally published on Chicago Tribune by June Fletcher and Nancy Keates, The Wall Street Journal on March 30, 2003
For Jack and Lani Garfield, duct taping the bedroom just won’t do. Instead, they’ve totally updated an old bomb shelter in their back yard, complete with a special ventilation system, a generator and a two-way radio. The retired dentist and his wife, from Palm Springs, Calif., even fixed up the decor, hanging Cold War-era bomb test photos on the wall.
“We’re ready,” says Garfield.
With war under way, worried homeowners are investing in the latest home addition: the “safe room.” With the help of home-security companies, they’re putting in food-storage tanks in the basement, blast-proof walls in the garage and fiberglass pods that can be buried in the backyard. One security specialist is selling a portable shelter on eBay — with two-day shipping included. And while experts say the rooms may not be as safe as some people hope, folks are shelling out from $3,000 to more than $50,000 for one, even when it’s just a closet.
Of course, the number of people putting these things in is still small, but companies like American Saferoom Door in Los Angeles say business is up 20 percent in the past two months, while Zytech, a recently launched Maryland safe-room builder, says it already has a backlog of a dozen orders for its $26,000-and-up customized rooms.
Alliance Security Products, a New York company owned by an ex-Israeli army officer, says its six-person tent can function as a safe room on the go. The company says it’s sold 150 in the past month — and has a waiting list four times that long.
Rex Bost’s version will be a little more permanent. “We live in scary times,” says the North Carolina builder. “This gives me peace of mind.” His will be in the basement with foot-thick concrete walls and its own separate ventilation system. And in the event nothing bad happens, the space won’t go to waste: He’s planning to have it double as a place to practice his guitar, because it will have soundproof walls.
Bomb shelters, of course, were an icon of the ’50s, though their use was actually pretty limited. Even in the height of the duck-and-cover days, fewer than 1 percent of Americans put one in, because many could cost as much as $2,500, or about half the average salary at the time. But in the ’90s, a new generation of shelters with high-tech features spawned an entire $1 billion-a-year business, for homeowners looking for protection from intruders (remember last year’s “Panic Room”?) and storms. Experts say almost 300,000 people have them now, more than during the Cold War era.
Still, while these shelters might foil thieves — or tornadoes — they won’t help homeowners weather a biochemical attack. For that, you need a special ventilation system to keep outside air at bay and filter out any dangerous chemicals or bacteria, as well as a backup power source. The result: Many of the companies that have been building the storm shelters, such as Oklahoma-based FamilySafe, are now adding air scrubbers and marketing them as terrorism protection. Ann Patton is among the people thinking of upgrading. “It’s grassroots homeland security,” says the Tulsa director of a preparedness group.
Experts generally dismiss temporary precautions like duct tape and plastic sheeting, saying they won’t keep out all the dangerous elements in the air. But, they say, the safe rooms equipped with ventilation are likely to do the job — as long as there’s a way to keep the power going. (Most models run on generators or batteries, though there are also solar-powered versions, and even hand-cranked ones.) The biggest drawback, says Ernest Kiesling, a professor of civil engineering and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association: Because there are no national standards for the rooms, homeowners have to take the maker’s word that they’ll actually work.
And it’s hard to know just what folks are getting for their money. While some tents go for as little as $3,300, Brian Camden, owner of Harden Structures in Virginia Beach, Va., has a $7,500 version he says is “built to military specifications,” with an extra-safe “air-lock entrance.” So why should anyone spring for a $66,000 fiberglass “Disaster Shelter” pod from Radius Engineering in New Hampshire? You can weather a nuclear blast in it, says owner Walton McCarthy. Plus, because it’s hidden underground, you can keep it a secret (some people even ask him to install it at night, says Mr. McCarthy). The issue: In case of disaster they don’t necessarily want to share with the less-prepared.