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.”
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.