The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 18, 2013

Area schools at forefront in providing storm shelters

From staff reports

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.

100,000 sheltered

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.

Voters weigh in

In Webb City, voters will go to the polls on April 2 to decide whether they want to cover their share of the cost of adding 90,000 square feet of shelter space. The total estimated cost is $18 million, with $9.6 million of that needed for the shelters and the rest of the money needed to finish them out. Of the total, $7.2 million would come from FEMA. The school district would spend $1.8 million from reserves, leaving $9 million for voters to approve in a bond issue.

The Carthage School District also is looking into constructing safe rooms at some of its buildings, according to Superintendent Blaine Henningsen. He said the district’s architectural firm, Hight Jackson Associates, has been asked to do an analysis on which buildings would be the best candidates for the district and for meeting FEMA rules.

“There are some requirements about where the buildings can be, in proximity with each other, so we’re asking them to look at that,” he said. “But we’ve been talking about it for a while, and we want to be able to provide some additional protection for students in our schools.”

Henningsen said the project would include some costs that the district had not been in a position to assume since the construction of a new high school.

“But we’re getting some of those costs paid off, and we’re getting to a point we might be able to package some activities together,” he said.

Henningsen said the completed storm rooms would be multifunctional to include other uses by the district. It is too early to know, he said, how many buildings or schools might be involved the project.

Joplin update

Joplin school officials are planning to build 16 safe rooms over the next 18 months. Three are under construction at the new sites for Joplin High School, East Middle School and Irving Elementary School, according to Mike Johnson, the district’s construction director.

Five more rooms — at McKinley, Eastmorland, Cecil Floyd and Stapleton elementary schools, and at Junge Field — could be under way by the time school gets out this spring, Johnson said. The safe rooms at the four schools will double as gymnasiums, while the safe room at Junge Field will serve as a field house with locker rooms. The start date for construction depends on approval of the designs by FEMA, which is pending, he said.

Work on the remaining eight safe rooms is expected to come afterward, Johnson said.

FEMA will provide 75 percent of the funds for the safe rooms, while the school district is responsible for the other 25 percent. The district recently received a $2.8 million Community Development Block Grant to help cover its portion, Johnson said.

Superintendent C.J. Huff said the safe rooms will not only provide shelter for students — 3,000 of whom lived in the direct line of the May 2011 tornado — but they also will be open to the community during severe weather at any time of day.

“There are a lot of people, obviously, since the storm who are concerned about safety in their homes,” he said. “One of the things that’s out there and available are these safe rooms that we’ve been able to tap into some funding for to be able to construct. I think it provides a lot of peace of mind.”

‘Epic events’

Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, said there is more emphasis and interest nationwide in strengthening schools for storms, given what happened in 2011 in Joplin and Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“As I understand it, Joplin has jumped out front in immediately alleviating the problem,” he said.

In Alabama, where a series of large tornadoes caused widespread damage and death just weeks before the Joplin storm, a state law requires storm shelters for new schools.

Nationwide, new building codes and new building techniques are being adopted.

“It takes about a generation for something to move from concept to widespread practice,” Kiesling said, noting that the idea of adding storm shelters really started to gain ground in the 1990s.

“There have been several epic events that moved it forward,” he said. “We are in an evolution in this decade that is unprecedented. Certainly the experience in Joplin has done a lot to move this forward and increase the consciousness.”

20,000 sheltered

JOPLIN SCHOOL OFFICIALS have estimated that the shelters being added over the next 18 months will have the capacity to protect more than 20,000 people.