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Why Public Storm Shelters Aren’t More Popular

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News, Science.
February 22, 2012

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Read about Edmond’s experience with storm shelters here.


When the storm sirens sound, the idea is you already have a plan in place. Some are lucky enough to have their own shelters to take cover in, while others head to the most protected room on the ground floor. In a few communities, there are public shelters to shield those from the storm…

The cavernous room is spread out in front of me. It’s sparse, what you see is what you get. And oftentimes, that means a spot on the carpet. The most important thing, according to Mike Bower, Midwest City’s Director of Emergency Management, is that it’s safe.

“Meets the FEMA approved standards. This room here actually houses about 14-hundred. It’s a pretty large shelter. Even though it houses 14-hundred, we’ve had as many as 18-hundred in here. Sometimes you just try to squeeze as many as you can to accommodate them and have to bend your own rules sometimes to get more people in.”

The shelter, right off of I-40 at the Reed Conference Center, is one of three in the city. FEMA funded construction of it after the 1999 tornadoes. It’s the largest – by far – and that can turn the parking lot into a campground.  When storms are lurking, there’s been times when you would think the next iPhone is behind the tall, heavy doors leading inside.

“If they know it’s a high weather day, there are just some people that are really frightened about storms and so they’ll come to the different shelters and even if we don’t have them open, they’ll just sit in their car or sit outside the shelter.”

That’s where the problems come in. Public shelters seem like an overwhelming plus for a community. Not so, says David Barnes, and he sides with most communities, who don’t have shelters. Barnes leads the Oklahoma County Emergency Management Department.

“He’s got a great system going, but even a good system like that because of the numbers we’re talking about and the magnitude of some of these events, even those good systems can be overwhelmed.”

Overwhelmed can mean a lot of things.

So David Barnes detailed just about everything that can, and often times, will happen.

“You’ve got an overcrowding situation, you’ve got people cooped up for long periods of time, we’ve got potential for illegal activity, we’ve got pets, we’ve got drugs, we’ve got alcohol, we’ve got restless people, we have sex offenders we have to deal with who are not supposed to be in the general population with kids. It gets very complicated very quickly.”

And there’s almost just as long a list for what it would take for public storm shelters to work. Barnes would need a small community, completely dependable group of volunteers, and residents willing to make the move to the shelter as soon as the sirens sounded, not at the last minute. In fact, his group, the Central Region of the Oklahoma Emergency Management Association, officially recommends personal storm shelters, not public ones. Still, there are times where you aren’t close to home.

“I have heard discussions about putting public storm shelters along the roadway, maybe at rest stops or at given locations every so many miles and I think there’s a little merit to that. But what we find is, some of the same conditions would exist there is what we have seen in public shelters that are in populated areas.”

“I’m on a stretch of road right now, I’m about 15 miles south of Interstate 40 out on US 70, I’m headed to McAlester. And right now, I see four cars counting me, and I’m on a four lane interstate highway. The number of people that would conceivably be able to get to a single pinpoint spot on the map where there was a shelter, that’s going to be pretty challenging.”

Besides getting to the shelter, there’s the question of who would build them, keep watch, and even open them up when a tornado is approaching. State, local, and county budgets are tight – is there money in there for storm shelters? The Oklahoma Highway Patrol is already stretched thin, at its lowest staffing levels in two decades – could they rush to a batch of shelters to keep people calm?

“Personal responsibility is always first, without fail. It’s not government responsibility to protect me, it’s my personal responsibility to have a plan. So you start rolling these together and it starts getting more complicated, and more complicated along the way.”

Mike Bower is willing to suspend logical thinking. He knows his shelters are important. While they cause a lot of trouble, it’s reassuring to know what they do…

“There are challenges, no question about it. Public shelters are important even though the three shelters that we have house less than 2 thousand people total, that’s a small percentage of our residents which is 54-thousand. But for the people that are in that shelter, that depend on that shelter, I think it’s important.”

The next time a tornado approaches, the crowds will gather, and the doors to Midwest City’s three shelters will fling open.

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