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OKC Housing Authority: Basements can’t be used as shelters yet

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OKLAHOMA CITY - While families are still cleaning up after the latest round of devastating tornadoes, we all know it will not be our last run-in with Mother Nature.

Many across the state are voicing concern about their own safety when it comes to public storm shelters.

In recent years, many cities have closed their facilities to the public and residents who live in public housing facilities said they feel helpless when the sirens sound.

Oklahoma City does not provide nor fund public storm shelters.

Neither does the Oklahoma City Housing Authority (OCHA).

However, following last month's tornadoes, they're now considering that option.

That's welcome news to Jessica Caldwell, who feared for her life last Friday at Will Rogers Courts in southwest Oklahoma City.

She said, "We look up and see this storm over there and we just see the tornado forming and we're like, 'What do we do, where do we go?'"

Caldwell and her neighbors had no shelter to hide from Friday's massive tornado.

"I was terrified," she said. "I was like 'Dad, we need to go somewhere! Dad let's go!' He was like, 'It's OK.' I said 'No, no, they're coming for us! We're going to die!'"

She didn't know the OCHA, which leases property to low-income residents, actually has several basements at Will Rogers Courts.

However, they were locked up after a child fell into a stairwell years ago.

But May's tornadoes changed everything.

"We had never really thought, 'Do we need to be providing storm shelters,'" Mark Gillett said, Executive Director of the OCHA. "After these two storms last week, we really sat down and we really thought about that. Could we do that?"

Gillett said the OCHA's federal funding from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was cut 18 percent from federal sequestration.

Regarding the use of those basements, he said they would want all of their approximately 15,000 residents on all their properties to have shelters, not just at Will Rogers Courts.

Gillett said the large property makes it a logistics issue as well.

"To have one person be able to get to those three sites (basements) in 'x' amount of time is a difficult thing to do," he said.

He said it's also a matter of getting the basements safe for residents.

Caldwell said she never knew these basements were here.

After a tour, she said she knows they could save lives.

"I think that they could," she said. "The biggest thing is making sure they're unlocked, and people going down the stairs, there's a lot of older people here who could trip and be rushing down there and that would be the fear."

Gillett said until HUD increases their funding again, they would welcome anyone who could help them find grant money and other initiatives to install storm shelters.