Riding out the storm

chawes@bradenton.comSeptember 1, 2011 

While thousands of other residents -- including most of his neighbors -- were frantically evacuating to escape Hurricane Charley in 2004, Dick Bishop was sitting in his home enjoying the peace of mind provided by the “safe room” he had built into his house.

But that wasn’t all he was doing: Bishop, who developed the Inlets subdivision where he was living, was also pondering how he could provide that peace of mind to others.

The result: StormRider Safe Rooms, which are small rooms, able to hold up to 15 people, made of super-strong concrete, cast into a channel frame, and reinforced with rods and wire mesh. The rooms are proven, through extensive testing, to withstand winds of up to 250 miles per hour -- well above Category 5 strength.

“The peace of mind from one of these is absolutely worth the cost, and I’m saying that from personal experience,” says Bishop. “It’s great to know that you’ve got a place to go without having to evacuate.”

The StormRider Safe Rooms can be built into new homes or added on to existing homes, installed around storage rooms, laundry rooms, master closets or second bathrooms when they’re not sheltering people from hurricanes, says Bill Davidson, StormRider’s general manager. Or they can be built as stand-alone structures in people’s backyards, serving as tool sheds or cabanas.

The Safe Rooms can also be customized with windows -- although Bishop and Davidson emphasize that doing so may compromise the rooms’ sturdiness unless the windows are also equipped with storm shutters. The smallest safe rooms are about 6 square feet, and the largest are 6 feet by 12 feet.

Bishop says the StormRiders are different than most safe rooms, which are built to withstand hurricanes only as strong as Category 3. Other safe rooms don’t have the StormRider’s patented channel frame.

“It’s a simple thing, but it’s very important,” Bishop says. “It allows everything to be tied together.”

And yet, the typical custom-built safe room is more expensive than the StormRider. Bishop knows because he had safe rooms installed in two of his houses over the years, each at a cost of more than $15,000.

Bishop spent more than six years and $1 million on engineers and testing to come up with the StormRider. Over the years, Bishop has been able to reduce the labor time needed to form the safe room from about 30 hours to about three. He’s also reduced the width of the StormRider’s walls from 8 inches to 4 inches, making it a near-perfect fit with the walls of most houses.

Davidson, with whom Bishop has been friends for years, is the marketing arm of the company and says the feedback he receives from the public is overwhelmingly interested.

“It makes sense to everybody, and the majority of people seem to have the location for it,” Davidson says. “Lack of storage is another big problem in Florida, and people seem to like the idea of adding more space to their house.”

He says the safe room is especially attractive to families in which someone is disabled, families that have pets and to older residents, because it alleviates the need to evacuate. Davidson also points out that the cost of a StormRider safe room -- $6,950 to $7,950, depending on size -- is about the same as the cost of a regular house addition of the same size.

Roberta Johnston, 75, is someone who finds the StormRider safe room a worthy investment. She’s having one installed in her west Bradenton home next week and says it makes extra sense for her and her 82-year-old husband. She’s already making plans to move her valuables into the room as soon as it’s installed, rather than waiting until right before a storm.

“I don’t think a 75-year-old and an 82-year-old need to be out there on the roads during a storm,” Johnston says. “And you have to do everything you can to be ready.”

Bishop and Davidson just began marketing the StormRiders last fall and have 43 constructed so far. The biggest surprise they’ve had since introducing their product is the reaction from builders.

“Florida builders basically say they don’t want to spend the money on them,” Bishop said, sharing the story of one builder whose response to him was, “I don’t want my salespeople talking about hurricanes. We want them talking only about sunshine, beaches and palm trees.”

That kind of response, which he’s received frequently from builders, has led Bishop and Davidson to focus on marketing directly to consumers.

“If you give people a choice between granite countertops and a safe room, they’ll take the safe room,” Bishop says. “And there’s not a lot of difference in the cost.”

Christine Hawes, Herald business writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.

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