A La Crescent company is leading a nationwide movement in protection against severe storms. Crest Precast is one of six manufacturers in the United States of above ground concrete storm shelters, a small precast building meant to within stand the force of an EF5 tornado.

The need for the shelters has increased, along with calls from concerned citizens, because of the recent outbreak of tornadoes in the Midwest and South, especially on March 2, when the Storm Prediction Center reported 81 funnel clouds.

Several years ago, Crest was looking for an opportunity to diversify its offerings after the building industry, in particular, housing, had slowed due to the downturn in the economy, according to Crest President Steve Mader.

In 1965, just after Crest had broken away to form an individual precast company, it focused primarily on septic systems, which it considered its primary product, both then and now. Then for nearly 40 years, the company witnessed stretches of building spurts until 2006 when the market was cut in half because of the housing crisis, Mader said.

“We had some problems in the 80s with Jimmy Carter and 18 percent interest, but traditionally, we were putting in 1,500 systems a year within a 150-mile radius,” Mader said, “so we invested heavily in this business with trucks, booms and plants, and we did quite well.”

But Mader and his brother, co-owners, wanted to venture into different markets, so they searched for something that could make up for some of the loss in residential housing. That included box culvert for storm water systems and pre-stress bridge systems. But in 2008, Crest decided it was time to give storm shelter a try.

It started with an order from a school that needed a safe place for its students. Ace Communications also ordered one to place along Interstate 90. These commercial shelters are very labor-intensive, Mader said, as individual panels have to be assembled, bolted together and caulked at the seams. The only exposed crease is at the door.

After shipping these large bunkers to companies around the country, Crest decided to look into producing residential storm shelters for individual homeowners, especially those who live Tornado Alley, which includes the middle section of the country from North Dakota to Texas.

“We came up with this little hut that we brought on the market last year,” said Mader, who called it beautiful but admitted it probably looks like a hunk of concrete to the lay person.

The residential units look similar to garden sheds with their pitched roof, but are anything but. They’re seamless except for a crack at the triple-locked door and hold about eight people. It weighs 20,000 pounds and are built to withstand EF5-strength winds — as long as they’re anchored to the ground, Mader said. By comparison, the tornado in La Crosse last May was an EF2.

“You build for the worst,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair to sell somebody an EF4 tornado shelter. You have to go the whole route.”

It also features a small escape hatch should a tree or car become lodged up against it during a storm. The door swings in, making it easier to escape into when high winds approach.

“It’s a bomb shelter,” he said. “You can’t shoot a hole through it, you can drop a car on it and you can’t punch your way through the door.”

Mader’s excited about the growth of the storm shelter industry, as it’s already taken off in other parts of the country.

“They’re selling thousands of these in South, especially after the tornadoes in Joplin,” Mader said. “People are really thinking storm shelters, not so much in La Crescent (since) we haven’t been blasted by tornadoes, but around in this area. … I think we’re going to see more in the Midwest.”

Though the shelters are popular down south, Mader is focusing his marketing efforts within a 300-mile radius of La Crescent. Last year, he sold six units and sent them to places like Stewartville, Minneapolis, Cottage Grove, Reads Landing, Peoria, Ill., and Merrill, Wis. In the first quarter of 2012, he already has six sold.

“It’s going to take off. We’ve sold to people who have a mobile home, people who live in a framed building and people who are just scared,” he said. “I just sense that people are scared. That’s why they’re calling.”

In fact, storm shelters are becoming such a focus that Crest was featured for its commercial and residential products last month in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article. The story’s focus was the uptick in Wisconsin firms producing these shelters as people become more wary of tornadoes. Crest also has a plant in Barnevald, Wis., which, somewhat ironically, was hit by a tornado in 1984 that killed nine people.

Though tornadoes are an old natural disaster, Mader feels shelters are a newer wish because of the severity of the storms.

“I think the storms have gotten worse. There’s no question the storms have gotten more frequent,” he said. “The storms have been more frequent and more severe. That’s been driving the questions and we decided to jump on it. Now is the time.”

Mader believes a big year is ahead and sales are going to grow three-fold. It won’t supplant the company’s other products, but it’s a nice additional component that came along at the right time.

“Our market did turn down in 2005, but we were poised to jump on something new,” he said. “It’s been a heck of a ride.”

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