The national attention on the Oklahoma City tornadoes has begun to fade a bit, but the tragedies still are very much are on the mind of one Lawrence city commissioner.
Commissioner Jeremy Farmer vowed shortly after the storms to make improving storm shelter availability in Lawrence a major issue during his four-year term. He plans to get started on the subject by convening his own task force on the topic on Thursday.
Farmer will host a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at Lawrence High School for anyone interested in serving on a task force that will examine ways the city could better ensure that residents have a safe place to take shelter from a storm.
Currently, there are no public tornado shelters available in Lawrence, none of the Lawrence Public Schools have FEMA-approved safe rooms and Farmer believes many businesses don’t have adequate shelter areas for employees and customers.
“I really want to focus on what we can do to make the community safer and what we can do to make our schools safer too,” said Farmer, who was elected to the commission in April.
He said two school board members tentatively have agreed to come to Thursday’s meeting. As we've previously reported, other school districts in the area — most notably Baldwin City, Eudora and the private Bishop Seabury Academy — have won grants to build significant FEMA-approved concrete-encased safe rooms at several of their facilities.
Farmer said he is still uncertain about an idea requiring all new homes to be built with storm shelters, although he said he wants to hear what task force members think.
“My inclination is that it is really hard to legislate a change in the development code that all houses built from this point forward have a place to go,” Farmer said. “I think it would be good to make it a strong suggestion, but to make it a requirement that could stop people from building a new home, I’m not sure of that.”
That will be an issue the local building community will want to watch, and it may be a bit ticklish. No one wants to come out against people having a place to take shelter in a storm, but adding safe rooms for new construction could add several thousand dollars to the price of a new home.
The idea of creating a network of publicly accessible storm shelters throughout the community could be an interesting one, too. The number of public shelters needed to adequately cover the entire community would be very large. An emergency management official has told me that FEMA recommends that effective public shelters need to be within five minutes of a person’s home.
If local officials find that standard unworkable, they could choose to build shelters in the most vulnerable areas of town — but how they determine those areas could be tricky. Previously there have been suggestions that mobile home parks be required to have a storm shelter for residents.
Even if city officials do settle on some shelter locations, there still will be the issue of who is responsible for running the shelters. That’s no small task. Essentially, someone always will have to be ready to unlock the doors during the event of a storm. Plus, in a previous interview, Jillian Rodrigue, assistant director of Douglas County Emergency Management, brought up a point I hadn’t thought of: Somebody also has to be responsible for locking the door when a storm is bearing down upon a shelter. Think about that for a second: People are still pulling into the parking lot but the storm is nearing. Someone with some training will have to make the call of when the door must be locked to preserve the safety of those inside.
But other communities figure out how to deal with these type of issues, and I suspect the task force will spend some time researching what other communities do. Farmer said he envisions the task force could have 25 to 30 people on it. He said he will start recruiting members — depending on who shows up to Thursday’s meeting — to ensure that it has a good mix of interested citizens and professionals. He will be looking for architects, construction engineers and others with technical expertise. Farmer hopes to have a set of recommendations to deliver to the other city commissioners by the end of the year.
“We’ll have to go into this understanding that everything will cost money that we don’t have,” Farmer said. “Is this something that people in our community will support? I think they will. We just have to package it in the right way.”