By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Dawn Brazelton’s daughters, Hannah, 6, and Cheyenne, 15, rode out the 2011 tornado in their grandmother’s home on 15th Street.
Although the house was badly damaged, the girls were unscathed while their mother was at work.
Dawn admits there have been times — when other storms approach, for example — that have been tough on the girls.
Dawn and her husband, Jon, were looking for a way to put in a shelter at their home west of town when they heard from Russel Gehrke.
He was offering to build the family a shelter using money raised by Joplin Expats, a charitable organization started by former Joplin residents after the tornado.
“He left me a voicemail that told me we were going to get a shelter, and I listened to it four or five times thinking I must be misunderstanding,” Dawn said. “I didn’t believe it until I called him back and he told me that, yes, I was getting a shelter, and that the girls would have a place to be safe.”
Gehrke’s storm shelters are unlike others, and so is his business.
He said he noticed something after the EF-5 storm that caused so much damage to businesses, homes, churches and schools. Playground equipment at restaurants on Range Line Road, in Parr Hill Park and at the Plaza Apartments all survived.
And all were made of plastic.
As a father of five, he also became aware of the effect the storm had on children who went through it.
“My wife heard a child screaming in the street the day after the tornado, and her mommy button got pushed. She asked a lady sitting on the steps nearby if everything was OK. The lady said the child hadn’t stopped since the storm came through. That’s when my button got pushed,” Gehrke said.
So the Springfield-based entrepreneur developed a product that he believes can provide safe, affordable protection during a large tornado like the one that hit Joplin.
He also put together an organization to manufacture those shelters, which are built on-site by teams of volunteers.
First called Project JOMO and then more recently renamed EF Joplin, the mission of his organization, he said, is to help families afford shelters.
“There’s a huge need among Joplin families, and we want to give them peace of mind. I would love to see a shelter like this on every other block in Joplin.”
Gehrke has worked with alternative energy companies over the years, built a biodiesel-fueled hot rod for Willie Nelson and has been featured on the Discovery Channel for his inventions.
He calls himself an engineering consultant rather than an engineer, because he lacks the necessary formal degree.
Prior to the tornado, Gehrke — operating as Real Greenius, LLC — helped companies find ways to divert recyclable products from their waste streams. He had been working on a plan to use waste materials to develop a building block that could serve as landscaping and retaining walls.
Those blocks led Gehrke to the basis for his tornado shelter: T-shaped blocks built of a solid plastic composite for which a patent is pending. The thick plastic blocks are stacked and bound together with a rebar frame. The wall is backed by plywood. Concrete up to 10 inches thick then is poured over the rebar and between the plastic and the plywood.
A steel door and roof are bolted on.
He’s completed three shelters to date — two for private homes as well as a third that’s viewable by the public outside the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, 320 E. 4th St.
Residential shelters are built no more than four feet wide in order to bear the structural load, but the one at the Chamber is longer and capable of holding several dozen people. It weighs approximately 50,000 pounds, he said.
To help fund the project, Gehrke is donating 100 percent of his royalties from the sale of one of his books, “Renewable Energies for Your Home,” published by McGraw Hill and dedicated to Joplin native Dennis Weaver.
He also is working to obtain money and product donations from his industrial clients, partners and friends. Materials used to make the blocks come from recyclable plastics and other materials diverted from industrial waste streams, and processed by Gehrke’s business, Real Greenius.
“Many industries have waste streams that can be recycled, but are not because of expense, lack of technology, and market development cost. More often for a business it’s less expensive to landfill their waste,” Gehrke said.
The smallest shelter, like the ones the Brazeltons had built, costs about $2,500 in materials, with labor provided free by Gehrke and volunteers. Gehrke said that if a Joplin resident or business chooses to pay $5,000 for a shelter, the remaining $2,500 goes to a local charity such as Joplin Expats, which buys the materials for a future shelter for another family that cannot afford one. In this way, the resident benefactor also can claim a tax deduction, he said.
Families who want a shelter must apply for one, and if selected, have several options, depending on their ability to pay: A free shelter and free installation, partial donation of a shelter and free installation, free installation only, or full purchase of a shelter and installation.
EF Joplin will consider several factors when selecting families, he said: Whether there are children and the number of dependents, the type of home, total household income, the location of the property (Joplin and Jasper County residents are on the top of the list) and if the home is rented or owned.
He would like to see businesses and charitable organizations help EF Joplin put more shelters on the ground in the area.
“I am hoping an organization sees merit in affordable shelters and will get involved,” he said.
For now, donations are made through the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation, but he said he also is in negotiations with a local charitable organization that, if finalized, would take the responsibility of the application and donation process off of Gehrke’s shoulders so he can “get back to work and provide for my family more effectively again.”