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Public Tornado Shelters Can Do More Harm than Good, Oklahoma Experts Say

Convincing residents to take steps to make sure their homes are safe during tornado season can be a challenge, but it’s the most viable way to keep them safe.

A tornado shelter in Tushka, Okla.
A tornado shelter is all that remains of a severely damaged building after a tornado struck Tushka, Okla., on May 2, 2011.
(FEMA News Photo)
(TNS) — When tornado sirens went off in Logan County on May 24, 2011, three Guthrie churches that had volunteered to serve as storm shelters were quickly overrun — and not just by people.

Dogs, cats and birds were packed together in church basements with residents looking to escape the tornado, said Logan County Emergency Management Director David Ball. One man showed up to a church with a boa constrictor wrapped around him, Ball said.

While everyone else was jockeying for space, the man and his snake always seemed to have plenty of room to themselves, Ball said.

Ball spoke Tuesday at the National Tornado Summit in Oklahoma City. Since the May 2011 storm, emergency managers have increasingly concluded that public shelters can do more harm than good, he said. Convincing residents to take steps to make sure their homes are safe during tornado season can be a challenge, he said, but it’s the most viable way to keep residents safe.

Ball said it is important for residents to have a tornado plan before the emergency.

During the tornado in May 24, 2011, emergency responders learned about the risks associated with public storm shelters, Ball said, whether they’re city-owned structures or simply churches, businesses and others that open their doors to residents who need a place to take shelter.

Many of the structures where residents took shelter during the 2011 tornado hadn’t been rated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to serve as disaster shelters, he said, and they weren’t prepared to deal with the challenges of sheltering hundreds of residents.

A similar scene played out at the University of Oklahoma during the May 2013 tornadoes, said Kevin Kloesel, director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

Kloesel, who also serves as OU’s meteorologist, said many Norman residents had counted for years on the city’s public storm shelters. But city officials closed those shelters to encourage residents to shelter in place during tornadoes, so thousands of residents flocked to campus.

When people seek shelter at places like OU, it causes problems for the institution and for the residents themselves, he said.

Schools, hospitals and others are often forced to turn people away because there isn’t enough space, he said. Those people get angry, he said, and they’re forced to come up with another plan while a storm is bearing down on them.

It’s important for residents to understand that they’re generally safer sheltering in place than they would be if they left home in the middle of a storm, Kloesel said, even if they don’t have a basement or storm shelter. But that’s often a difficult message to convey, he said.

“It’s really tough to take things away from people,” he said.

In tornado-prone places like Oklahoma, storm safety needs to be factored into home-buying decisions, just like floor space and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, he said. To stay safe during storms, residents need to prepare well ahead of time rather than counting on public shelters that might not be there when they need them, he said.

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©2015 The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.