Tornado Safe Rooms Spring Up in Unusual Spaces

In the wake of devastating tornadoes, awareness of safe rooms has risen and more cities are looking to add them to public spaces.

by Crystal Thomas, The Kansas City Star / July 31, 2014
Forty-two people rode out a tornado in this safe room in Saltillo, Miss., on June 12.

(MCT) — During severe weather, Carla Kerr, her daughter and her mother bunker down in their 10-foot-long bathroom on the first floor. With blankets, a flashlight and a weather radio, it’s a bit of a tight fit.

As residents of Guinotte Manor, a public housing complex in Kansas City, they don’t have basements where they can take cover from tornadoes.

At the end of next summer, Kerr will have a safer solution across the street.

The Garrison Community Center will start construction on a safe room this summer, said Bob Lawler, project manager of Kansas City Parks & Recreation Department. The safe room will be able to withstand the highest-rated tornadoes while holding 1,300 occupants, close to the estimated number of residents within a half-mile radius.

The community center is just one of several unusual spaces in Kansas and Missouri to which the Federal Emergency Management Agency has given grant money.

Schools tend to be popular choices for safe rooms in Kansas and Missouri. But in the wake of the 2011 Joplin tornado and the 2013 Moore, Okla., tornado, awareness of safe rooms has risen and more cities are looking to add them to public spaces, said Emily Dunavent, vice president of the American Tornado Shelter Association.

Dunavent has seen the increase in her role as director of development for Atlas Safe Rooms, a Joplin-based safe room installer. In the last year, she said, at least 10 cities and businesses nationwide have approached Atlas about adding safe rooms to their buildings.

In order to receive money from FEMA, a safe room has to meet a number of requirements: having a back-up generator, bathrooms and thick concrete walls being a few. FEMA will provide 75 percent of the money needed to make the enhancements, while the entity applying for the grant supplies the rest.

Near Kansas City, the Independence Parks & Recreation Department has just finished building safe rooms in George Owens Nature Park and McCoy Park, said Jeff Umbreit, recreation program supervisor.

Although the buildings are ready to be used as safe rooms, landscaping and other cosmetic upgrades still have to be done. So far, the concrete walls of the George Owens safe room, which will also be a nature and youth education center when it’s finished, have been painted blue and yellow.

The safe room can hold more than 800 occupants, Umbreit said. In addition to those camping in the park, Pioneer Ridge Middle School across the street will have access to the safe room during a tornado.

Boy Scout camps are other areas that receive FEMA money to shelter a vulnerable population. Mark Brayer said that before the 11 safe rooms were built in Camp Naish in Kansas in 2012, the Boy Scouts were told to find the lowest ditch in the woods and settle in.

As director of support services for the Heart of America Council, Brayer said the 2008 western Iowa tornado sped up their decision to invest in safe rooms. During the tornado, four boys were killed and 48 people were injured at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch.

Brayer described each safe room as “a big basement to the side of a hill with very thick walls,” equipped with water, electricity, a generator and a bathroom. The safe rooms are used for any type of severe weather, not just tornadoes. This year, the camp has already used the safe rooms twice. Last year, the safe rooms were used about five times.

“If a tornado comes and wipes out Camp Naish above, the kids are protected, and they can survive there for 72 hours, in order to have time to evacuate them out of the area,” Brayer said.

Brayer said each safe room can hold 110 occupants at a time. During the summer, about 15,000 youths and adults go through the 1,100-acre Theodore Naish Scout Reservation in Bonner Springs, so the safe rooms serve a large population.

Also in Bonner Springs, an emergency medical services facility and a public library have received FEMA grants to build safe rooms.

In Johnson County, the juvenile detention center and two Public Works administration buildings have been approved for safe rooms money, said Sharon Watson, public affairs director of the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department.

Kerr said in the last couple of years, she has only had to shelter from severe weather about twice a year. Although she thinks the safe room will be nice to have, she’s equally excited for the safe room’s other use: a gym.

“I can drag my grandkids out there for some fun,” Kerr said.

©2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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