The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

February 3, 2012

City official: SEMA rejects helping individuals pay for safe rooms

JOPLIN, Mo. — Joplin officials were notified Friday by the State Emergency Management Agency that individual storm shelters will not be funded, but a spokesman said that $20 million will be earmarked to build community safe rooms in Joplin schools or elsewhere.

Assistant City Manager Sam Anselm said he received an email Friday morning notifying him of the decision regarding the city’s request for grants in connection with individual safe rooms. He said the email from the state said the reason is because “the state is focusing its priorities on community-sized safe rooms and we don’t believe we will have enough money to fund individual safe rooms.”

Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the agency, wrote in an email to the Globe that “our priority is to provide access to safe rooms for as many residents of the Joplin area as possible. For that reason, we have allocated more than $20 million to provide community safe rooms at local schools and other community facilities.”

Mayor Mike Woolston said he had not been notified that the state had decided to allocate money for community safe rooms.

“I knew the school district was talking about having safe rooms, but I didn’t know if that was for the staff and students to use, or if it was for citizens to utilize,” Woolston said.

He said he did not know about a proposal for community safe rooms in “other community facilities. I haven’t really heard anybody else talking about building them, so I don’t know what that would be. Maybe they are trying to leave that door open if somebody develops an idea.”

Woolston said he understands the state’s decision is to benefit the most people it can, and “hopefully that is something we can massage a little bit and make that work for people.”

Joplin schools Superintendent C.J. Huff could not be reached Friday night. School board President Ashley Micklethwaite said she had not been notified of the shelter decision and, without official confirmation or without knowing if Huff had been notified, felt she should not comment.

Approximately 630 residents had signed up on the city’s website indicating they were interested in possible funding for individual storm shelters as a result of the May 22 tornado. States sometimes make available some of the federal hazard mitigation funding they receive to preventive measures such as building storm shelters. In that case, residents are reimbursed three-fourths of the cost. But, officials had cautioned earlier that there is a lot of need and competition for those funds, and individual reimbursement was at the bottom of the state’s priority list for storm recovery.

The lack of funding will not stop some residents from building their own storm shelter.

Daniel and Monica Mihajolvic are rebuilding their home, which was destroyed by the killer tornado, at 2425 Connor Ave. He was one of the residents who signed up for possible reimbursement of part of the cost if that financial help became available.

On the night of the tornado, they were having a family get-together at their house. When the sirens sounded, they piled their three children and nine adults into the laundry room, which was located in the center of the house and did not have an exterior wall. After the EF-5 storm subsided, the laundry room was the only part of their house left intact.

The basement of what will be their new home has been constructed, and an in-ground safe room is nearly finished.

Daniel Mihajolvic said the state’s decision would not have prevented him from putting in a storm shelter.

“As much as that would have been nice, it really doesn’t alter the decision at all,” he said. “We planned on putting one in whether we were reimbursed or had to pay for it out of pocket. We felt it was necessary for the safety of our children.”

The Joplin City Council last summer considered whether to require that storm shelters be built in homes as well commercial and public buildings. The idea was nixed, though, after contractors said at a public hearing that some residents would not be able to afford the upfront construction cost even if they received reimbursement.

Crystal Harrington, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Southwest Missouri, told the council at that time that those she represents would favor incentives to build shelters, but not mandates.

“Mandating it is a big step because of the cost,” she told the council. “I don’t know that you want to put that on folks who are struggling to build their house back.”

The builders said a safe room or storm shelter costs $3,000 to $4,000.

Anselm will inform the council of the state’s decision at the council’s informal meeting at 5:15 p.m. Monday.

He had asked the state for funding to supply weather radios to residents, but that application also was denied. He said other possibilities that could be explored will be discussed Monday with the council.

Common approach

City officials said last summer that if Joplin won grants to help pay for individual storm shelters, it would be the first wide-scale safe room project ever undertaken in the state. The state’s priority for disaster funds has been to buy out flooded properties to prevent recurring damage claims from floods.

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