WEBB CITY, Mo. —
Webb City grandmother Kathy Wright favors a plan that would see her grandchildren’s school district combine federal grant money with local tax dollars to build safe rooms for students.
In all, Webb City school officials want to add 90,000 square feet of shelter space in six rooms. The largest, at the high school, would protect up to 3,000 people.
Most of the rooms would double as gymnasiums or libraries. The shelters would be open to the community during a storm.
“It’s a great idea. It’s protecting our kids,” Wright said. “The dual-purpose idea is great because they will be usable for the community. I feel safer that our kids won’t just be in the hallways.
“Before, we didn’t hear a lot of talk of any kind of shelters in the city. This discussion has brought this to the front.”
Throughout the region, the conversation is much the same: Parents, patrons, administrators and teachers are taking steps to add storm shelters capable of housing hundreds or even thousands of people at a time.
In Joplin, construction of new shelters is in evidence at the new Irving Elementary and East Middle School building sites. The Jasper district just finished a shelter for its students. And in Baxter Springs, Kan., the school district — at its first groundbreaking in 38 years — began a project that will add shelters at a number of its schools.
Brian Orr, a structural engineer with Toth and Associates in Springfield, has worked with dozens of school districts in Southwest Missouri to help them apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to help with the costs.
Some of the interest predates the May 2011 Joplin tornado, but much of it followed. Parents and educators saw what that storm did to school buildings and realized that the age-old plan in many schools — sending children into hallways — was not only worthless if a large tornado hit, but it might even make matters worse.
“Those became basically wind tunnels,” Orr said, referring to hallways. “Joplin brought that to light. Joplin kind of opened up the eyes of a lot of people.”
Very few school districts are sitting out the chance to get FEMA money for shelters after seeing what happened in Joplin.
“Webb City is in design now,” Orr said. “Sarcoxie has two that are in design. Cassville has one under construction from a 2010 grant round. Avilla is funded, and they are in design.”
The list goes on.
Some of the districts, having witnessed earlier outbreaks of severe tornadoes in 2003 and 2008, were already moving on adding shelters before the Joplin storm.
Orr estimates that over a five-year period, beginning in 2010 and ending in 2015, enough shelter space will have been built to shield 100,000 students or community members in Southwest Missouri.
“It’s in the neighborhood of 750,000 square feet, and it’s $120 million in grants,” he said.
The Jasper School District storm shelter is the latest in the area. It has been in use since Christmas break, and there recently was an open house so residents could tour it. Like the shelters in a lot of districts, the building has a dual purpose. During the school day, it serves as a cafeteria and auxiliary gymnasium. The shelter connects the elementary and high school buildings. During a storm, it can house up to 1,600 people, protecting them in winds of up to 250 mph.
In most cases, FEMA grants cover the cost of the shelter. Anything else that school districts want to do — convert the buildings into gymnasiums, libraries or cafeterias, for example — is on the districts.