More places to take shelter in Tornado Alley towns

Residential and public ‘safe rooms’ are more common

03/31/2012 5:00 AM

05/29/2014 11:47 AM

It’s been more than 20 years since a massive tornado decimated about one-third of Andover, killing 13 people in the Golden Spur mobile home park.

But folks in the Butler County town haven’t forgotten about the tornado – or the fact that another one could strike.

If that happens, Andover will be better prepared, thanks to an increasing number of residential basements and two new public storm shelters.

“Just about every home that’s been built in Andover since the tornado event has been constructed with a basement,” Deputy Fire Chief Mike Roosevelt said, referring to the 1991 tornado that struck Haysville, south Wichita and McConnell Air Force Base before hammering Andover. “Even some of the duplex and triplex homes have been constructed with basement elements in them."

For those caught away from home during a storm, Andover’s recently completed library and city hall were built with “safe rooms” to serve as public storm shelters.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials advise Tornado Alley communities to consider building the safe rooms, and are willing to provide funding.

“If they have no community safe room at all, that might be a priority for them,” said Melissa Janssen, chief of hazard mitigation assistance for FEMA’s Region 7, which includes Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.

In order to receive federal assistance, Janssen said, a community has to have a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan.

“A community gets together and asks, ‘What are our major hazards?’ ” she said. “ ‘Do we live next to a river and flooding is typically a big problem?’ ”

There are no public storm shelters in Wichita, and Sedgwick County Emergency Management director Randy Duncan said he has no plans to change that.

Public storm shelters fell out of favor after a mile-wide F4 tornado with winds of more than 166 miles an hour tore through Wichita Falls, Texas, on April 10, 1979. More than half of the 42 people killed by the tornado that day died in their cars.

“Essentially, the people left their homes and drove into the path of the tornado,” Duncan said. “Not that much has changed since 1979.”

How much lead time?

Mike Smith disagrees.

Smith, the senior vice president and chief innovation executive for Wichita-based AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, used to think public shelters were good only for residents of mobile home parks.

“The science and our predictive ability is what’s caused me to change my mind,” Smith said. “If you have five minutes’ lead time, that’s enough time to get to shelter in a mobile home park.

“If you have 15 minutes of lead time, which you often have now with F4 and F5 tornadoes, that makes shelters an option.”

Sedgwick County emergency management officials urge residents to “shelter in place” – go to your basement or a neighbor’s basement in the event of threatening weather.

Though he readily concedes “the idea of a public shelter sounds really good on its face,” Duncan said he is yet to be convinced that storm shelters increase safety for the public.

“How many public shelters are enough?” he asked. “Where would you position them? We probably would not leave them open all the time – somebody would need to have a key.

“These are all challenges that, especially in our current fiscally restrained environment, would have to be addressed.”

The cities and towns that surround Wichita commonly have public shelters.

Derby and Valley Center have shelter locations posted on their municipal websites. Rose Hill, Augusta, Towanda and Andover all have churches, schools or other buildings where residents can take shelter in the event of threatening weather, Butler County Emergency Management director Jim Schmidt said.

FEMA helps pay

About two years ago, Clearwater built a stand-alone shelter next to the fire station downtown.

“It can hold up to about 100 people;” said Kent Brown, Clearwater’s city administrator. “I wouldn’t want to be in there when it was holding 100 people.”

The shelter was built with help from a FEMA grant. FEMA pays 75 percent of the design and construction of a safe room.

FEMA guidelines require that a safe room be built to withstand winds of 250 miles an hour – which would be the equivalent of a strong EF-5 tornado.

Stand-alone shelters are pretty uncommon, FEMA’s Janssen said. Most communities incorporate tornado shelters into activity centers or other public buildings, such as Andover’s city hall and library.

“We only pay for the hardening aspect – what is necessary for life safety,” Janssen said. “We’re not paying for the basketball court.”

FEMA money becomes available after a disaster has been declared. The money is made available to the state in which the disaster occurred, and state officials then dispense the money available to applicants that meet specified criteria.

FEMA money can be used to help pay for residential safe rooms, Janssen said, but safe rooms that have already been built aren’t eligible for reimbursement. Residents who want to add a safe room to their homes should notify city officials, she said. In turn, the officials can include that accumulated demand in requests for federal assistance once a disaster has been declared.

Sedgwick County officials urge Wichita residents who do not have basements to find shelter with neighbors, friends or a nearby church. Even though USD 259 schools have safe rooms, they are not available for use by the public.

When the Rev. Con Howerton first moved to Wichita to serve as pastor of Temple Baptist Church on Maple in the Delano neighborhood of west Wichita, he would bring his family to the church basement when tornado sirens sounded because he felt safer there.

The basement was built as a nuclear fallout shelter during the Cold War and has thick concrete walls. When he heard others in the neighborhood say they didn’t have a basement and weren’t sure where to go, he told them about the church basement.

More than once last year, he said at least 20 people came to the basement when stormy weather struck. Howerton said 200 people could readily fit into the basement.

“We could put more,” he said, adding with a wry chuckle, “we’d have to become friends.”

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