Alabama Officials Say There Is a Need for More Life-Saving Storm Shelters

The shelters cost from $50,000 to more than $100,000 but pay for themselves in lives saved, officials say. Many of the 47 shelters in operation are 10-by-48 feet and have a capacity of 96.

by Michael Wetzel, The Decatur Daily, Ala. / December 5, 2018

(TNS) — Although there are nearly 50 storm shelters in Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties, government officials say there’s a need for more and they're worth the cost.

“When you have a storm shelter making the difference between life and death, it’s a great investment for the community,” said Morgan County District 2 Commissioner Randy Vest. “You can’t put a price on a human life. I wouldn’t want to.”

Presently Morgan County has two additional storm shelters on the drawing board. When completed the county will have 19 certified public shelters.

The Oak Ridge community has one under construction at fire station No. 2 on Vaughn Bridge Road. At last week's Morgan County Commission meeting, commissioners approved a shelter for the Tri-County Volunteer Fire Department in the Ryan-Hulaco area. A state grant will provide the money for the Tri-County shelter, and NARCOG is handling the grant writing and paperwork.

The shelter will be in District 4 Commissioner Greg Abercrombie’s territory.

“In 2011, our area was actually ground zero in the county,” he said. “Several homes were damaged. Five people (all members of the Hallmark family) in nearby Marshall County were killed. Residents didn’t have a safe place to go other than another house or a nearby church. … We’ve had a few tornadoes come through this area. It’s almost like a tornado alley.”

The series of 2011 tornadoes took the lives of 248 Alabamians, including 14 from Lawrence County, five from Limestone, and none from Morgan. According to the National Weather Service, of 62 tornadoes that touched down in the state on April 27, 2011, eight were EF4 storms and three were the stronger EF5 storms.

“Our shelters are pretty crowded and sometimes totally packed, standing room only,” said Limestone Emergency Management Agency Director Rita White. She said that a 2014 storm system brought an EF3 tornado and two smaller twisters to the Coxey/Clements area that claimed two lives, injured 25 people and caused extensive property damage.

“The shelter there definitely saved lives,” she said. “It was full to the brim. We had 115 people in a shelter designed for about 90.”

Limestone and Lawrence counties received extensive damage from several tornadoes that moved through on March 19. A house just east of Ardmore was flattened as the family sought shelter in a basement of a nearby friend’s house. No injuries were reported.

On Nov. 29, 2016, a twister tore through the Danville-Neel area of Morgan County. Buddy Lacy, the former fire chief of the Neel Volunteer Fire Department, said the station’s shelter proved to be a life saver. He said several cars parked outside of the shelter were totaled and debris surrounded the shelter with more than 90 people safe inside.

Records show Limestone has 14 shelters but none in Athens’ city limits. Lawrence has 16 with two in Moulton, the county seat. Officials say the shelters cost from $50,000 to more than $100,000. Several area companies are listed as shelter manufacturers.

Many of the 47 shelters in operation are 10-by-48 feet and have a capacity of 96.

“Funding is always an issue when the county or cities see the need for a shelter or an additional one,” Lawrence County EMA Director Johnny Cantrell said. He said many times funding will come from a 75-25 percent matching grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Occasionally after a disaster like (the state) had in 2011 with all of the tornadoes and deaths, FEMA will allocate money for more shelters. The counties and communities have to apply for those grants. Even if they have applied in the past, they’ll have to reapply.”

Some communities such as Oak Ridge have helped themselves finance a shelter. Vest gave the community $25,000 out of his district funds. Joseph Hardin, the Oak Ridge Volunteer Fire Department chief, said, “We raised about that much with different events, selling barbecues and were able to use some of the association money we had saved. But it wouldn’t have been possible without Randy.”

Hardin said the shelter will be the second for his community. The other shelter, he said, is at fire station No. 1 at 200 Simmons Road, about five minutes away. “The shelter at station No. 2 is more visible than No. 1 and there’s a subdivision being built nearby. There’s usually a packed house at the shelter we have now when the word of a severe storm is coming. This second shelter gives our people an approved place to go.”

Vest said his district shop workers prepped the site and the contractor is awaiting drier weather to pour the concrete. He said it should be operational by the end of January.

Town Creek Mayor Mike Parker said he is blessed that his town has a double unit near Hazlewood Elementary a couple of blocks off Alabama 20.

“Capacity is 192,” he said. “We’ve had it full, and people were turned away because we were full. We have some mobile homes in town and when storm warnings are in the forecast it’s a madhouse sometimes. … Our shelter gets a pretty good workout and I make sure somebody in the immediate area of the shelter has a key to open it. Our police cars each have a key to the shelter. My biggest fear is that a storm comes up and the shelter is locked.”

He said it is open six or seven times a year because of severe storms.

North Courtland Mayor Riely Evans Sr. won election two years ago and setting up a storm shelter was one of his campaign promises. North Courtland is the lone municipality in Lawrence County without a public shelter.

“We should have had one in place years ago,” he said. “Our residents deserve a safe place to go when we have tornadoes and high winds coming here.”

Presently, he said, the residents go to a shelter at Roy Coffey Park in Courtland, less than 3 miles away.

He said is working closely with Cantrell and former District 1 Commissioner Mose Jones Jr., and current Commissioner Jesse Byrd about an approved shelter for the town.

“We’ll put it at the old town hall site on Davis Street,” Evans said. “We need FEMA to approve the money. … We’ve been fortunate lately, the storms have gone around us. If we don’t have (a shelter) in four years, I’ll be heartbroken for the community. I think we’ll have one by 2020.”

Officials said people seeking shelter are usually cooperative with the regulations. Most public shelters prohibit pets (except for service dogs), smoking, firearms and alcohol.

“People get mad when we tell them no pets are allowed,” Parker added. “You can’t let the space for a person be taken up by a dog. It doesn’t matter if it’s a toy poodle or a German shepherd. No pets are allowed. We’ve got a big sign saying no pets. It’s FEMA’s rules. It was a grant from FEMA that helped build this thing. We have to abide by their rules.”

County officials said they try to have their shelters open when bad weather is in the forecast.

Some spread the word by social media and apps on mobile devices.

“Technology has improved and that has in turn saved lives,” Vest said. “We’re able to get the word out. ... But the bottom line is to use common sense. If you know bad weather is headed your way, have a plan of action, know where your closest shelter is.”

Cantrell said his office will open shelters 24 hours in advance in some incidences.

White urged residents seeking safety to leave early for the shelters. “If a tornado warning has been issued, that means a tornado has been sighted, it’s too late, don’t try to get to a shelter,” she said. “You don’t want to be in a car when a tornado strikes.”

— or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.


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