The Norman Transcript

News Features

June 21, 2013

Schools think outside the FEMA-funded box when building tornado shelters



“We haven’t had a district in the state choose to go that route of the battery backup,” Willis said.

Tornadoes tend to be short-lived, Willis said. Additionally, firefighters and police respond to schools first after a tornado, so there’s no real need for ventilation and battery backup for lights, especially in an above-ground shelter.

While all of the schools and architectural firms interviewed said FEMA structural guidelines are followed in building school safe rooms, added costs that don’t contribute to safety are eliminated when FEMA funding isn’t present.

Kansas community builds large shelters: Jefferson Elementary in Wichita, Kan., was hit by a tornado April 5, 1999, and became the first school to have a FEMA-funded storm shelter in 2002. Today, 69 Wichita schools have a combined total of 77 shelters, with eight additional safe rooms currently under construction.

Kenton Cox, architect and engineer with SJCF architects was part of the team that designed Wichita’s shelters.

“We were able to partner with FEMA to build our first shelter at Jefferson Elementary School,” Cox said. “Since there’s 99 schools, that’s a lot of shelters.”

All of Wichita’s schools are either FEMA-certified designed shelters or follow FEMA structural guidelines.

“When we don’t get our FEMA funding, we also don’t put those extra things that don’t impact safety, but that’s a fraction of the cost,” Cox said.

Wichita always tries for FEMA funding because the feds pay for 75 percent of the shell.

“That’s worth about $130 a square foot,” Cox said. “The shelters cost about $200 finished, but they (FEMA) won’t pay for any of the finishes.”

In the case of a shelter that operates as a gym, for example, the school district must pay for the gym floor.

Lately, FEMA money has been drying up, and Wichita has continued its commitment without FEMA money. A bond passed by Wichita voters in 2008 is providing funding to build a safe room in every school that does not currently have one.

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