OHATCHEE — It’s a patio, a shed, a fire pit and a place to relax on summer weekends in the shade in the backyard.
But more importantly, it might be something that can save the lives of Michael Gilbert and his family.
Like many residents in rural Calhoun County who saw firsthand the destruction of the April 27, 2011, tornado, Gilbert, a part-time volunteer firefighter with the Big Oak Fire Department, knew he needed to take steps to protect his loved ones. So he built a shelter. And then he built around it.
“It kind of got out of control,” Gilbert said Tuesday, standing on the walkway of what, from the outside, looks like an extensive stone patio in his backyard in Ohatchee. Two rock columns with solar-powered lamps mark the entrance to a raised platform with a hand-crafted fireplace and a stone bench. Farther back sits an 8-foot-tall storage shed with the same rock facade. And even farther back, tucked in the corner, is a concrete-reinforced storm shelter.
Three years ago, that’s all Gilbert’s backyard project was supposed to be.
“I was out late that night, and it was crazy,” he said, recalling the tornado that struck just a half-mile from his home. “I saw enough that night to know that I needed to do something to help my family.”
So he dug a trench in the yard, poured concrete and created a 10-by-8-foot shelter — enough space for him, his wife, two sons and three dogs to stand comfortably in case of emergency.
On the inside, Gilbert’s shelter looks like what you’d expect to find in one of the no-frills, tube-shaped, steel community storm shelters that popped up following the 2011 tornado. Concrete-block walls hold wood shelves on which board games, battery-powered lamps and radios, and canned food are stored. The shelves can double as makeshift beds if need be.
But on the outside, Gilbert’s shelter, which he decorated by hand from rocks dug up on his property, is a lot more pleasing to the eye. Safety was the main concern, he said, but he credits his wife, Sherry, for questioning why their new backyard landscape couldn’t have a little more aesthetic appeal.
“I thought it could really use some walls and a walkway, or else all the dirt was just going to turn to mud,” Sherry said. “And then I wanted to plant some flowers and make it look nice.”
It blossomed from there, Gilbert said. First, he built a walkway and railings. Then two stone columns. Then a stone bench. Then a shed, to make more room in the actual shelter. Then a fire pit.
It took three years for Gilbert to finish the project, although he hesitates to use the word “completed.” In the last two weeks, he was able to put the finishing touches on a new outdoor fireplace, and has since had friends over to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
“I get all sorts of comments about it,” Gilbert said, with a laugh. “But it was so much fun to build.”
In the meantime, Gilbert said he hasn’t lost sight of the original purpose, and during tornado warnings over the last couple of years, he’s made sure to put his shelter to good use.
“I wanted us to be safe,” he said. “That was the main thing.”