The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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April 17, 2014

Joplin school district readies community safe rooms for storm season

Thousands of Joplin residents will soon be able to stay safe during storms in some of the region’s newest shelters.

Community safe rooms at Cecil Floyd, Stapleton, McKinley and Eastmorland elementary schools, which double as gymnasiums, and Junge Field, which will double as a field house, are expected to be open within the next few weeks, according to Mike Johnson, the school district’s director of construction.

“At Cecil Floyd, we’re in the last few days of odds and ends, and then they’ll start falling (into place) like dominoes,” he said. “We want to open them to the public because it’s that time of year. We will be calling the city for final inspections just any day.”

Construction of the remaining safe rooms — at Jefferson, Royal Heights, Kelsey Norman, Duenweg, Columbia and West Central elementary schools and at Joplin High School — is under way; they are expected to be complete by the fall, Johnson said.

Safe rooms at the new Irving and Soaring Heights elementary schools are already open for use. A spokeswoman for the district said nine residents sought shelter in Irving’s safe room during a recent tornado watch, during which they played basketball, read books and visited with each other.

All of the safe rooms are designed to accommodate not only the students, faculty and staff of each school, but also the residents who live within a 5-minute walk and a half-mile drive of them, according to Jason Cravens, executive director of secondary education. They each have an average capacity of 1,000 to 1,500 people, he said.

“The safe rooms are designed for that general radius” around each school, he said. “We wouldn’t turn people away, obviously, but there was a capacity in designing them.”

The safe rooms are built to guidelines set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and are designed to withstand winds of 250 mph. A tornado is rated as an EF-5, the highest category on the Enhanced Fujita scale, when its winds exceed 200 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

They will be open to the public, regardless of whether school is in session, whenever the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning or severe thunderstorm warning with winds exceeding 75 mph, both of which will trigger Joplin’s tornado sirens to be activated. They will also open whenever a tornado watch has been issued for the area.

If a watch or warning is issued during school hours, the safe rooms will be opened by school personnel, who will be in charge of the shelter during the weather event and will lock it after it has been vacated. Priority inside the shelter will be given to the school’s students and staff, who will remain separate from any community members seeking shelter there.

Outside of school hours, volunteer teams of nearby residents who have been trained in the operations plan will respond to and open the shelters in the event of a watch or warning. These teams will manage the shelters during the weather event and lock them afterward.

In both cases, the individuals acting as shelter supervisors will determine when the safe room doors will be closed and locked to maintain the safety of those inside. They will also be responsible for restricting access to the rest of the school, Cravens said.

Pets are allowed inside, as long as they are kept in an airline-approved carrier at all times. Smoking, tobacco, drugs, alcohol and weapons are all prohibited. Radios or music devices may be used with earphones.

While the safe rooms are equipped with backup generators, emergency and first-aid supplies and access to restrooms, they are not designed to be long-term shelters. Residents must leave the safe room once the watch or warning is lifted.

Erin Rakes, who lives less than two blocks from Eastmorland Elementary School with her husband, mother and three young children, said she appreciates having a secure place to go to during a tornado or severe storm.

“We don’t have a storm shelter here (at home), and it will be really convenient for me and my family to get up there during bad weather,” she said.

Rakes is part of the volunteer shelter management team for the Eastmorland safe room. She is one of four people who will unlock the shelter during non-school hours, let people in and lock the doors after the storm has passed.

Agreeing to volunteer for that position was an easy decision, she said.

“I figured that I’d already be up there anyway, not having a storm shelter,” she said. “I’d probably be one of the first ones up there.”

Michelle Storie, who lives about a block from Eastmorland with her husband and two children in a house that does not have a storm shelter, said the school’s safe room will take away the stress and worry that she has come to feel during tornado season.

“Not having a place to go has always been a fear, and it’s quite a bit of a comfort to know that a block away, I’ll be able to keep my family safe,” she said.

Storie also is part of Eastmorland’s volunteer shelter management team. She said at least one person from the four “key-holder” families will be at the safe room during the entirety of a warning or watch, which can be in place for hours at a time. But she doesn’t think the responsibility will become a burden.

“I was 100 percent OK with being a key-holder. We’re very close and can get up there in no time,” she said. “It will be nice for the entire neighborhood to know that somebody will go up there and unlock it so they can be safe as well.”

The safe rooms have been built with FEMA funds that covered 75 percent of basic costs, requiring the district to cover the remaining 25 percent as well as any additional costs.

For more information

The full operations plan for the Joplin school district’s community safe rooms can be found online at joplinschools.org/saferooms.

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