Archive for Wednesday, May 22, 2013

City commissioner wants review of city’s storm shelter policies in wake of Oklahoma tornado

May 22, 2013


At least one Lawrence city commissioner wants an examination of what would happen if Lawrence was hit by a tornado similar in scale — almost 1.5 miles wide — to the one that ripped through Moore, Okla.

“There are all the schools and KU that come to mind, but think about all the businesses that house thousands of people every day,” City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said. “If you were in a grocery store shopping that day, you are probably going to be shuffled to a back room and a walk-in cooler maybe held together by duct tape.”

Farmer is asking city staff members to take a look at the community’s building codes in response to the disaster to determine if there are more standards the city should adopt when it comes to storm shelters and other protections.

“We need to have safe rooms and safe places all across our community,” Farmer said. “I’m not going to be an advocate for everybody digging one in their yard, but we have to do something more than we are right now.”

No community shelters

Lawrence and Douglas County have no storm shelters that are open to the public on a regular basis, said Jillian Rodrigue, assistant director of Douglas County Emergency Management.

But area school districts have begun installing FEMA-designated safe rooms — specially designed concrete structures designed to provide “near absolute protection” — as part of new building projects or renovations projects.

Eudora Elementary was the first in 2008 when it received a $566,000 federal grant to build the cafeteria area of its elementary school to safe room standards. It is designed to accommodate all 800 students and staff members during a storm. The Baldwin school district has two safe rooms: one at its elementary school and an 1,800-person facility that also serves as the district’s performing arts center.

But the Baldwin project begins to illuminate the costs that could be involved in building large, multiple structures across the city. The project cost about $4.5 million, according to figures provided at the time the district received a $3.5 million grant for the facility in 2009.

Bishop Seabury Academy in Lawrence expects to begin construction next month on a safe room that will double as a locker room for the private school’s approximately 200 students and staff, said Betsy Alford, a secretary at the school.

The Lawrence public schools, however, have no facilities with FEMA safe rooms, although all facilities have severe weather response plans, said district spokeswoman Julie Boyle.

The district will undertake several school renovations in the coming years using a recently approved $92.5 million school bond issue. In a statement, Superintendent Rick Doll said the district’s bond planning committee has recommended architects take FEMA safe room guidelines into consideration when designing the projects. But decisions on the actual construction of those structures will still have to be made by the board as the design process progresses. Doll indicated the district wasn’t counting on any FEMA grant funds to build such structures.

Farmer stopped short of saying the city ought to change its building code to require safe rooms in such public structures, but he also didn’t rule out advocating for such a change.

“I don’t know the answer right now,” Farmer said, but it will be a priority of mine to find an answer. This is not leaving my radar screen anytime soon.”

Personally prepared

Rodrigue, with Emergency Management, said her agency would welcome a discussion on how the community can bolster its defenses against severe weather. But she said any system of community storm shelters likely would come with complex questions.

She said FEMA standards recommend shelters be within five minutes of a person’s home. She said that would require a large number of shelters to provide community-wide coverage in Lawrence, and finding sites that could accommodate parking, backup power supply and other infrastructure could be challenging. Plus, she said creating a system to staff and manage the shelters during storms would be significant.

“There are a lot of considerations that would have to be discussed,” Rodrigue said.

She said her department urges families and individuals to make their own basic plans for where they would go in the event of a tornado. She said that plan should include not only preparations for a storm striking when they are at home but also when they are out and about in the community. The department also suggests all people have an emergency kit prepared that includes, food, water, extra clothes, personal medications, a whistle and proof of residency. She said residents of Moore were finding it difficult to return to their neighborhoods unless they could show law enforcement officers proof of residency.

“We know there are a lot of uncomfortable issues to think about, but each person needs to take that step to be personally prepared,” Rodrigue said.


Bob Forer 5 years, 1 month ago

The city had this discussion a few years back. I recall Boog coming up with the absurd idea of requiring all new residential construction without a basement to be equipped with a tornado shelter. It was quickly shot down.

Fact of the matter is that it is unrealistically cost prohibitive to build a tornado proof residence. The key is early warning a heeding announcements to take cover. .

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

"The key is early warning a heeding announcements to take cover. ."

A warning is pointless if there is no place to take cover, dontcha think?

ljwhirled 5 years, 1 month ago

Tell that to the 7 kids killed at the Plaza Towers in Moore.

Public buildings in tornado alley should have a safe place to take refuge, especially public schools.

The schools take responsibility for our kids and should be prepared for predictable events.

Given a long enough timeline, there is GOING to be a tornado in Lawrence, Kansas.

Newly constructed private residences should also have a safe room built to FEMA standards. It is not that expensive (~$3K) to have one of the bathrooms or closets built out of steel re-enforced concrete with a steel door.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

I know of a house (it was 7000 sq. ft., so not a typical ticky-tacky box) built about 20 years ago in which they encased the master bedroom in 12" of concrete on all sides. In and of itself it was the size of a small house, so I don't think cost was a consideration.

Jack McEnaney 5 years, 1 month ago

Dear Jeremy farmer,

That cooler held together by duct tape saved every persons life in the dillons in Joplin two years ago tonight. Glad you do a little homework before shooting off your mouth

Jack McEnaney 5 years, 1 month ago

he was quoted. "if you were in a grocery store shopping that day, you will probably be shuffled off to a back room and a walk in cooler maybe held together by duct tape." those coolers are obviously designed with a little more thought than mr farmer used when stating the above quote. The cooler took a direct hit from an F5 tornado. All that was left was the cooler. I wonder why they were shuffled back to that area. How much more ideal can you get than a 100% survival rate? What are you looking for when an f5 tornado strikes Lawrence?

Daniel Speicher 5 years, 1 month ago

"How much more ideal can you get than a 100% survival rate?"

Consistent 100% survival rate. The customers that were sent back to that cooler at Joplin were quite fortunate that they were sent back there to be certain. However, I'm not sure you could trust that such a structure would provide such protection in every similar situation. There is a reason that emergency management departments do studies on such likelihoods and why there are recommendations for "safe rooms" and storm shelters. I think Mr. Farmer is spot on and should continue this research and proactive governance. We certainly do not want to wait until it's too late to discuss storm safety.

Paul Wilson 5 years, 1 month ago

+1 This is the only comment worth reading.

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 1 month ago

Thanks Larry, I agree 100%. Life is is dangerous - 100% of us will die from it at some point.

Carol Bowen 5 years, 1 month ago

When the new development code was discussed, builders and realtors claimed that storm shelters would increase the cost of real estate dramatically. Consequently, Corliss will not find storm shelters required in the city code.

ferrislives 5 years, 1 month ago

My question has always been how can the local school district decide to build the newest school at South surrounded by glass with no storm shelter or basement? I have never understood that decision, and I hope that those kids never get hit by a tornado. Did anything ever end up getting built for their protection at that school?

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 1 month ago

Am I correct in my research that there has been only one fatality due to a tornado in Lawrence, Kansas in the last 100 years and possibly only 3 in the city's entire history?? Bang for your buck, this is not the best use of public funds to help out citizens of Lawrence. Is it too late to turn Rock Chalk park into a giant shelter? The community might actually get to step foot inside it then.

Jeremiah Jefferson 5 years, 1 month ago

I am screwed no matter what. Got no basement. Going to have to ride it out in the bath tub and wear my full size authentic John Elway football helmet.

Randall Barnes 5 years, 1 month ago

O.K. HERE I GO. No building code will stop an EF 5 tornado like the one that hit Moore Oklahoma.Not even a bank vault is safe. commissioner Farmer please look at all of these pictures of Moore, Oklahoma and tell me what building codes would you change and how Lawrence would be safe from an act of GOD like this one the largest tornado is U.S. history.Build a storm shelter in your closet just like many did have in Oklahoma and place it in front of a tornado that size and see what happens.I volunteered for 10 years for the Douglas County Emergency Management Agency until i decided to go chase storms across the country.

Bailey Perkins 5 years, 1 month ago


Your intentions are great, but not feasible. Do realize a substantial portion of KU ‘residents’ are students, living in apartment dwellings and few homes with basements (not to mention overall structural problems). Unless you happen (student wise) to be on campus (i.e. Watson Stacks), your ‘safety’ is limited. I spent 2+ hours in the stacks, due to a storm back in 2009-ish. It wasn’t a great experience, but we weren’t allowed to leave the premises until the storm passed.

Anyway, there’s really no way to fix the problem. Yes, landlords, homeowners, etc. could build storm shelters, but do realize that won’t come cheap. Over the past few years I have thought about installing a storm shelter in my home (built 2001), but doing so would require building a unit underground (most likely accessed via the garage). What would this cost, you might ask? Oh somewhere in the range of $4,000-$6,000. Another option would be to build a standing unit, but that isn’t possible with a one-car garage.

Unless neighborhood shelters are built and tornado warnings are issued far in advance, then perhaps, everyone would be accounted for. Otherwise, there’s too much money at stake to ensure every building, home, etc. meets structural standards and other regulations for severe weather.

If you have lived in Kansas or any part of ‘Tornado Alley’ and you’re just now concerned about your safety, you might want to take that into consideration (More so if you lived here most of, if not, your entire life.)

One last thing, why not increase tornado safety and I'm not just talking about drills. Ensure residents actually know how to prepare for, and take cover. The first step in being prepared is education.

Carol Bowen 5 years ago

If they can provide shelters in Oklahoma, why can't we provide them in Kansas? It's expensive to retrofit, but that's not an excuse for new construction.

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