YOUR QUESTIONS: FEMA safe rooms in Joplin, tornado recovery

Building Safer Schools
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Districts across tornado alley are asking some important questions this summer after the recent Okla. tornadoes; mainly, how can our community do better for next time?

The Joplin, Missouri School District is one of the few districts in the country that faced that critical question head on.

They are recovering with purpose and building safer schools.


After Ali Meyer's story Thursday, our viewers have been asking some great questions.

Ali took the time to answer some of them.

Steph Renee: Why doesn't Oklahoma have something like that?

Actually, we do! FEMA mitigation dollars are potentially available in any county which has a natural disaster distinction. The application process is lengthy and complicated. However, in Deer Creek Schools, two out of their five EF-5 safe rooms were built using FEMA grants.

Cindy Tiffin Spaulding: How can they afford that?

The financial breakdown is extremely complicated. Joplin Schools used a combination of insurance money, state funding, federal funding and private donations to pay for their safe rooms. Applicable funding depends on the level of damage to the building, how the safe room will be used, who the safe room is for. Generally speaking, FEMA grants will pay for 50 to 75 percent of the cost of a community or school safe room. The FEMA money pays for construction, materials and design of a shelter. It does not pay for the "finish" that is the interior of the safe room (i.e. the gym floor, the auditorium seating, the computer lab tables, etc). Each Joplin Schools safe room was funded with a combination of sources.

Angela ‏@scrapaholic: How many schools does Joplin have?

When post-tornado construction is complete, Joplin will have 16 school sites: 12 elementary schools, three middle schools and one high school. They also have a technology center that is being rebuilt on the same campus as the high school. About 7,500 students attend Joplin Schools.

Here's more info about Joplin Schools.

Katie Johnstonbaugh ‏@DishinAndDishesHow many people could be safe?

When construction is complete In Joplin, Superintendent Dr. CJ Huff believes they have capacity in their 13 safe rooms to shelter about 15,000 people. The safe rooms were constructed to hold every student, every school district staff member and every neighbor within a five-minute walk of a public school.

Curtis Shay: If the people rely on the schools for shelter and walk to them on a Sunday who is going to open the door for them?

Great question! In Joplin, they have decided to give access to a strategic group of residents in the area around each school. Those residents have volunteered to open the safe room areas in the event of a severe weather emergency outside of school hours.

Jason Brown: Oklahoma does have this! ANY school district in this State can put a bond issue for this on the ballot LOCALLY.

Yes. That's correct. In fact, in Norman they have built 16 shelter areas in seven school buildings without the use of any FEMA funding. For years, Norman Public Schools has been including safe room construction funding in local bond issues for new school construction or additions. According to district spokesperson Shelly Hickman, "Our commitment to safe rooms in new construction and our preparedness and sheltering procedures earned our district Storm Ready certification from the National Weather Service six months ago."

Daphne ThomasHow do you put a price on a life?

It is a difficult issue. While the community of Joplin has seemingly lead the charge on this, it was not an easy decision in that city either. The district was faced with monumental rebuilding costs. The district needed to rebuild six school buildings from the ground up and repair four additional sites that were heavily damaged in the 2011 F5 tornado. The safe room construction was in addition to those necessary expenses. The district got very creative when orchestrating their reconstruction. In the end, Joplin will have $209 million in construction to rebuild their district. After they secured funding from SEMA, FEMA, insurance and donations, they needed an additional $62 million. The city passed a bond issue to raise the necessary funding. It was a tough sell for conservative southwestern Missouri. According to School Superintendent Dr. CJ Huff Missouri law dictates school bond issues have to pass by a super-majority (two-thirds of the vote), not a simple majority (50 percent). "Even in our scenario where everybody could see the damage, and had experienced an EF-5 tornado up close and personal, it was still hard to get it done because of that super-majority issue we had to overcome." The $62 million Joplin bond issue passed by just 43 vote earlier this year.

Additional links:

FEMA 361 Saferooms

Hazard Mitigation Grant Program

(Missouri) SEMA Mitigation Management

Saferoom FAQs


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