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Wichita has no public storm shelters; here's why

Wichita officials urge residents to have a safety plan in place before tornadoes threaten the area.
Wichita officials urge residents to have a safety plan in place before tornadoes threaten the area. Courtesy photo

Unlike many of its suburbs, Wichita has no public storm shelters for residents to use when severe weather threatens.

There are multiple reasons for that, said Cody Charvat, acting director of emergency management for Sedgwick County.

First and foremost, Charvat said, authorities do not want a repeat of what happened when Wichita Falls, Texas, was hit by a tornado in 1979. People left houses where they were safe to drive to public shelters and were killed en route.

"People tend to push that decision back until they become convinced it's really time to go, and then it's too late because the storm is nearly on top of them," Charvat said in an e-mail response to questions.

They run the risk of being hit by the tornado, getting caught up in traffic snarls or reaching a shelter only to discover it's already filled to capacity, he said.

Despite those potential issues, Wichita residents appear to overwhelmingly favor the establishment of public storm shelters in the city. Informal polls on both Twitter and Facebook revealed 70 percent of those who responded want Wichita to have public storm shelters.

Wichita Fire Marshal Stuart Bevis said he's not aware of any proposals to create public shelters in the city.

"We encourage residents to plan ahead and follow best practices which include going to the lowest level of their home to an interior room," Bevis said in an e-mail response to questions. "They should stay away from doors and windows, and find a location in their home with as many walls as possible between them and the exterior."

FEMA has no official position on whether cities should have public storm shelters, said Kristiana Sanford, public affairs specialist for Region VII, which includes Kansas.

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program provides money that can go toward safe rooms, storm shelters, sirens and other hazard mitigation projects, Sanford said. The grant money is awarded to the states, who then disperse the money for particular projects at the local level.

"If we can have more shelters built into existing structures like apartments and health care facilities, the need to find shelter diminishes," Rick Shellenbarger, emergency management planner for Sedgwick County, said in an online interview.

But adding additional costs into construction is "a hard sell," Shellenbarger said.

The new Central Library will have a "collaboration" room that can be used for large events and will double as a storm shelter for staff and patrons who happen to be present. But Library Director Cynthia Berner said the space won't be used as a public storm shelter.

"If we have a few people that wander in who haven't been paying attention to the weather," they won't be turned away if there is space, Berner said.

But the library won't be open during warnings, she said.

"It's not intended as a public shelter," Berner said.

Small spaces such as closets or bathrooms work best as makeshift shelters inside a home, Charvat said. If a bathroom is the best option, he said, climbing into the tub and then pulling a mattress or big pillows over yourself and anyone with you can provide added protection is a good idea.

For those who have a basement or underground shelter, it's best to get under something sturdy such as a table or staircase and cover your head, he said.

If there's a neighbor or church nearby with shelter space, he said, that's an acceptable option "if folks make the decision to get there early ... they need to get there early enough so that they can go to Plan B in case the shelter is locked or full."

"No one anywhere is likely to issue a directive telling people what to do, because then they become liable for those peoples' actions," Charvat said.

At the end of the day, he said, it comes down to individuals taking responsibility for themselves and their family. It's why officials consistently preach the importance of figuring out where to get to shelter even before severe weather threatens.

"Make a plan, and don't wait until we're under a tornado watch to start thinking about it," Charvat said.