Shelter from the Storm

April 1, 2009 | By More

Story by Dianne Edwards

Barbara Nunnelly of Atkins remembers the ominous day like it was yesterday. She shudders as she recalls the events of Feb. 5, 2008, and the tornado aftermath now known as the longest tracked tornado in recorded Arkansas history. She was having lunch in Russellville with friends and began to feel nervous about the approaching storm front. Weather reports predicted the possibility for an outbreak of tornadoes and Barbara urged her dining companions to go home. 

Shortly after reaching her Atkins home, Barbara began making preparations to move herself and her dogs to the storm shelter that she and her husband Billy had placed on the 14 acres on which their home was built at 1306 SE St.

“We had waited for 13 years to build that home,” Barbara said fondly. Now, a year after the devastating F3 tornado that took the lives of friends and neighbors, the home stands a damaged shell of the once beautiful 3-story stucco home was constructed.

The tornado that struck Atkins was an EF3 which means winds were from 136 to 165 mph. The tornado that hit Atkins was just one small part of a nearly 140 mile long path from Yell County to Sharp County. The storm traveled 123 continuous miles from 5 miles E-SE of Centerville in Yell County to 3.2 miles northeast of Highland in Sharp County.

The last F3 in Pope County was on Feb. 14, 1956 — ironically another February tornado.

Reluctantly Barbara admits that their inability to rebuild is a direct result of insurance failure to settle. The home has been inspected and will have to be taken completely to the ground because of the “racking” which moved the house off its foundation. And, because tornado damage left the home inhabitable and red tape has put repairs on hold, the multitude of rain and ice that ravaged the area over the past year has only compounded the problem.

She and her husband, along with their pets, are living on the property in a travel trailer while they conduct their businesses and try to move forward.

The Nunnellys are the owners of Home Services Storm Shelters and Saferooms. Irony found them beginning the business more than 15 years ago with Billy’s father asked them about possible local tornado shelter installers. Not finding a local distributor, the Nunnellys called the state chamber of commerce office in Oklahoma to inquire.

It took a number of calls to installation businesses before she located Hausners Pre-Cast Concrete, a family-owned business based in Drumright, Okla. The company was a “great operation,” with generational employees in their 55th year of business.

“And they won’t let just anybody sell their product,” Barbara exclaimed.

What followed her visit to Hausners has led to 15 years as one (if not only) of the federal and state certified female contractors in the Arkansas.

Billy, a certified millwright who travels and works world-wide as an employee of Siemens Power Generator Systems out of Orlando, Fla., had worked for Russellville Steel for 20 years previously. After owning another small business, the Nunnellys formed their storm shelter company in 1994.

Since Billy travels worldwide, Barbara has taken over running the business, managing crews, evaluating shelter locations and talking to the families to determine their specific needs for shelter. Billy helps whenever he is home but it is Barbara’s primary responsibility to run the company.

She still feels the sting of working in a male-dominated contractor’s role.

“Sometimes when I get onsite, I still get the ‘oh, great. It’s a woman doing man’s work,’” said Barbara, “but I never let it get to me. I know I have to work harder, longer, smarter… but I don’t mind. I love what I do.”

Her vibrancy and energy exude from her as she speaks of more than a decade and a half of helping families. And, the Atkins storm brought things too close to home, said Barbara.

The Cherry family that lost their lives in the Feb. 5th storm lived right next door and were close friends whom they had known for more than six years before settling in. Barbara was devastated when they realized the family had not survived.

With the storm front approaching, Barbara began preparations to move into the shelter, offering a place of respite for all those she could reach.

“There were two young men working close by our property who ran for the shelter as the storm approached. My step-son Billy Bob was the last inside the shelter, with his hand closing the door just as the storm approached. Her shelter held 14 people and two dogs, she recalled.

Husband Billy had gone to the house for extra batteries and the couple’s two small dogs. He could not hear Barbara’s calls to his cell phone or to the answering machine.

“I was crazy, knowing the storm was headed right for us,” Barbara recalled. “I just knew Billy wouldn’t survive.”

But he did, hunkering down inside a closet under the staircase of the couple’s home as the storm lifted the roof and whirled violently into their house.

“At the first sound of silence, you are tempted to step outside. Never, never ever open the door until you are certain the storm has passed. What most folks don’t know is that a tornado has an ‘eye’ just like a hurricane, and often you are lulled into the sense that it is over when it becomes quiet – and then suddenly, it’s there all over again,” stressed Barbara.

When the storm ended, Barbara was relieved to see the home was still standing. Soon Billy emerged without a scratch. Both dogs had been sucked out of the garage but remained unscathed.

She credits the quick actions of friends, neighbors and especially the Atkins Fire Department, heavy equipment volunteers, and the Pope County Road Department and County Judge Jim Ed Gibson with fast recovery actions immediately following the tornado.

Before the Feb. 5 storms, Barbara had sold a number of shelters around the area, including the Jerusalem area which experienced a January tornado just previous to the Atkins storm. Since the local devastation last winter, she has lots of calls inquiring about her products. The first year of business the Nunnellys sold 25 shelters. Since January of 2008, they’ve probably installed 200 in Pope, Johnson and Conway Counties alone. They can cover the surrounding six-state area.

Saferooms can be installed for anyone with limited mobility, are wheel-chair bound or or those who don’t want to go outside to access the shelter. Sizes range from small to jumbo and can be designed to fit the owner’s needs and limitations. They are constructed of 3/16” plate steel with design factors built to withstand winds of up to 300 miles per hours.

Pre-cast shelters are constructed of reinforced fiber and steel rebar with a minimum of 6,000 psi concrete. They range in size from a jumbo shelter 6’8” W x 10’ L x 6’2” H down to a flat-top that measures 5’x7’x6’2”. (For additional specifications, contact the Nunnellys.) All are designed with protection in mind.

Following the devastation near Lake Atkins, the Nunnellys intervened when the McLaine family who had lost everything was in peril.

“We drove to Lake Atkins to survey the damage and came up of Mrs. McLaine who was crying and saying they had no insurance and her kids were terrified.”

“First, we donated a storm shelter so their kids could feel safe again,” said Barbara. Then, along with the help off friends, neighbors and the Union Grove Church, they provided financial assistance when they were ineligible for a FEMA trailer.

“Because they were renting the mobile home in which they lived and were not the owners, they did not qualify. The owner of the trailer did not have insurance so it left them homeless.”

The family, which includes four children, is now living with their parents in a motor home because of the generosity of the Nunnellys and others like them.

But it didn’t stop there. When Renee Preslar, Deputy PIO of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management called, Barbara stepped up once again.

“There was another family who lost everything, and because their son has extreme medical bills, were having trouble getting back on their feet. The nine-year- old son had bone-marrow transplants and multiple organ transplants in an effort to find an ever-advancing cancer,” recalled Barbara.

“Ty Pennington and the team from Extreme Makeover were rebuilding the family’s home and we were asked to donate a storm shelter. Of course we said ‘yes.’”

And the Nunnellys lowered the price of the shelters following the storm, bringing on site additional shelters so that the installation could be handled more quickly..

As Barbara and Billy continue to help calm the frazzled nerves of a community ravaged by the Tuesday Super Tornadoes, she continues to recover from a broken ankle. Finished with therapy now, she worked tirelessly following the Feb. 5th storm despite stepping sideways and breaking the ankle in the days that followed last year’s storm.

They work toward building their own home as others around them have resettled into new construction. She admits the area will never be the same again, so great is the sense of loss and emotion. Her new home will have a full basement this time with more steel and other safety features. She urges everyone to have a storm safety kit stored and ready for such emergencies.

And, even though she installs storm shelters and saferooms for a living, this was Barbara’s first experience riding out a tornado. And although storms are her ‘job security,’ she’d prefer that no one has to experience another without shelter from the storm.

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