Shelter from the storm

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sam Saucier is not afraid of storms, but she is also smart enough to know how dangerous storms can be.

And because Saucier is often home alone with her young grandson, she has a storm shelter.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Association offered a program to pay back 75 percent of the cost of a storm shelter for anyone in Mississippi who built one on their property.

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Saucier and her husband jumped at the chance.

“I had been researching them for over a year,” Saucier said. “It cost $4,200, we paid $500 down and FEMA reimbursed us 75 percent.”

Saucier, who has lived for eight years in a mobile home on seven acres on Cranfield Road, said she had the back five acres of her land cleared of trees to help pay the cost of the shelter. The shelter took nearly a year to fund, and Saucier said if it weren’t for the money they received from their timber, they would still be paying it off.

“It was $5,000 — not a lot for peace of mind,” she said. “It’s been a very good investment.”

Before the shelter, Saucier said she and her 4-year-old and 5-year-old grandsons, who lived with her, would drive to her brother’s house on Hammett Street in Natchez every time a storm hit.

Once during the 13-mile drive, she got stuck in severe weather and had to try to wait it out under a bridge.

That was the last straw.

“I said, ‘I’m tired of doing this,’” she recalled. “With these little ones I was trying to drag, it was very, very hard. I wanted to protect them.”

So she and husband Edward “Cookie” Saucier, who often works three to four days on the road, began looking into storm shelters.

“A lot of times he’s been out when we’ve had bad weather, and gives him peace of mind to know we can have somewhere to go and not be on the road.”

When they chose to use the FEMA program, the Sauciers’ decided on an above ground shelter because of their age — there would be no steep stairs for the 55-year-olds to climb down.

More than two years later, Saucier said the 6-foot-by-9-foot concrete shelter has been used at least a dozen times.

“For (Hurricane) Gustav we had nine people in there for a day and a half,” she said. “With Gustav we weren’t sorry we had it, and (during the Dec. 9 tornado) we weren’t sorry we had it.”

That F1 twister, combined with straight-line winds, sent her and her 4-year-old grandson Christopher into the shelter.

Inside the thick, sealed concrete walls and steel door — which, by regulation, must all be strong enough to withstand a missile impact — the shelter is fully stocked, with Meals-Ready-to-Eat, plenty of water, clothes and sleeping bags. Toys for her grandchildren and games for adults as well.

Saucier said they even hooked up a small TV and a DVD player during Gustav, and they were so safe that now Christopher thinks they have to go into the shelter every time it rains.

“I’ve never been scared for myself, but I’ve always been scared for my child or grandchildren,” Saucier said. “One time when we lived in Morgantown in a double-wide under a hill, there was a tornado on the river. I opened the front door, and it just sucked back on us. We just knew we were gone.

“My husband and myself just covered ourselves and our child under the coffee table and waited.”

The Sauciers survived that terrible experience, but they don’t want anyone else to have to go through it.

That’s why Saucier has offered the shelter to her neighbors and to anyone willing to listen.

Her daughter and another grandchild now live down the street and come to the shelter almost every time she uses it.

“We go in it even if it’s just high winds,” she said. “One time I remember I was home watching something on TV, and my son called and said, ‘Momma, there’s a tornado headed to Roxie. Get my baby in that storm shelter!’”

Director of Emergency Management Stan Owens said as far as he knows, the Sauciers’ storm shelter is the only one in Adams County.

He said many people in counties in northern Mississippi — especially within the Golden Triangle of Columbus, Starkville and West Point — took FEMA up on its offer.

“I really don’t know why others didn’t take advantage of the program,” Owens said. “I guess the amount of tornado activity we have here just didn’t have folks interested in it.”

But Owens said he expects with the two major storms — Gustav and the December tornado that produced 110-mile-per-hour winds — that Natchez saw this year, more people will be interested in having some sort of refuge.

He said Natchez has experienced more storms this year than it has in years.

“Speaking for all of Mississippi, this has been one of the most active years for severe weather in quite a while,” Owens said. “Mississippi broke the state record on recorded tornados this year.”

Saucier’s shelter, made of 22,000 pounds of one-foot-thick concrete, is built to FEMA standards and can sustain 3-second wind gusts of up to 250 miles per hour.

They are now putting in steel pipes to support a roof over the structure, because Saucier said rain still seeps in from vents above and below the door.

She said she may have caught a little flack when the shelter was first built, but it has been worth every penny.

“I think my brother may have made fun of me, but you can do that when you live in a house with nice hallways that’s real sturdy,” she said. “When Katrina hit, six of us moved in with him and lived with him for almost nine days.

“But now he’s the one that will call me and say, ‘Hey, this or this is coming. Y’all need to get in that shelter.’”