April tornado inspired Benton man to open storm shelter business

06/21/2012 5:00 AM

06/21/2012 7:18 AM

When a tornado headed toward south Wichita in April, Ray and Marilyn Kraft had nowhere to go but the crawl space under their home.

“My wife hated lying in the dirt,” Ray Kraft said. “She said, ‘I don’t ever want to do that again.’ ”

The Krafts decided to put a tornado shelter in, ultimately choosing Storm Defense Shelters, a company that installs below-ground shelters in garages.

Interestingly, the company had just been started by Eric Stolfi of Benton, who’d had a similar experience with the same tornado system.

“We didn’t have anywhere to go except for a culvert by the bridge,” Stolfi said.

Since the tornado outbreak on April 14, Stolfi’s company has installed six garage shelters and sold a half-dozen more.

A former kitchen and bath subcontractor whose business had suffered with the economy, Stolfi said he’d been looking for a different line of work. He researched storm shelters and found an Oklahoma company that makes shelters designed to be installed in garages.

He then spent a couple of weeks working for a northwest Arkansas company that sells and installs the garage shelters. Stolfi said the garage shelters have been sold for several years in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee. He was “really surprised” no one in Wichita was doing the same, although there’s a similar operation in Salina, he said.

The shelters come in three sizes, designed to seat from six to 12 people. They are made of plated steel strong enough to hold a car’s weight, with a sliding door that locks in place. They come with carpeted benches, stairs and a battery-driven light, weather radio and ventilation system.

To install the shelters, Stolfi and his crew excavate the garage floor, place the shelter in the hole and then pour concrete around it.

Although more expensive than typical backyard shelters – the garage models range in price from $4,750 to $7,500 – Stolfi said they have several advantages, starting with the fact that they don’t take up additional space. If the garage is attached, the shelter can be accessed without going outside. Its location in a garage helps keep it dry when not in use.

Kraft said he thinks the shelter will increase the value of his home, but that’s not the reason he got it.

“We probably won’t go in it for five years, but we wanted peace of mind,” he said.

Stolfi said that based on what he learned working for the Arkansas installer, he’s not surprised by his company’s quick start. Every bad storm is like an advertisement for the shelters, he noted.

“They’re pretty popular.”

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