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Our View: FEMA shelters are stairways to nowhere

 

 

In the nine years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, 72 storm shelters have been built in Mississippi using Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money. The majority of those shelters were built in areas most affected by hurricanes. We can understand the need for these shelters, since hurricane evacuations usually are issued well in advance. 

 

In recent years, however, we are seeing more of the shelters popping up in north Mississippi. History shows that tornadoes are, by far, the most common major weather disaster that confronts Mississippians. At first blush, this seems like a reasonable approach to disaster preparedness. 

 

Recently, the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors has been discussing the idea of applying for a FEMA grant to build a storm shelter in the Industrial Park Road area. The county would provide about $300,000 of the estimated $3 million project. FEMA, using taxpayer dollars, would pay the rest. 

 

There are also plans to build shelters in other areas most affected by this spring's tornadoes, most notably in Winston, Lee and Itawamba counties. 

 

There has been some talk of how these facilities could be used when they are not being used as a shelter. 

 

When the town of Smithville began its rebuilding work after a devastating tornado in 2011, the town used FEMA funds to rebuild its high school gym to meet FEMA shelter standards. It was a wise choice. They now have a storm shelter within a minute's access for a large population of children. 

 

The problem is that FEMA guidelines generally put severe limitations on how these facilities can be used. They cannot be used as office or storage space because the facilities must be ready at a moment's notice. 

 

The thinking is that when bad weather is predicted, people who are most vulnerable -- for example, those who live in mobile homes -- would seek shelter well in advance of the storm. That's the theory. The reality is that people generally wait until the threat is upon them. By then, it is too late to go to a shelter that is not near at hand. 

 

Syndicated columnist Wyatt Emmerich noted this in a column this spring. In that column, he noted that a $3.6 million FEMA shelter built in Pike County had been used by only 75 people for one night since it opened in 2012. That works out to $3,600 per person per night, he calculated. 

 

Reached Tuesday, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said counties are not required to provide data on how many people have used the 72 shelters built by FEMA since 2005.  

 

He did acknowledge that residents have not used the facilities in great numbers. 

 

"The frustrating thing for us is that today's National Weather Service does a great job of warning us well in advance of bad weather," Flynn said. "We would like to see the counties do a better job of alerting residents of the shelters. That's what they are there for, after all." 

 

So, in Oktibbeha County, a $3 million facility which is likely to set dormant for months, even years, on end is being proposed. 

 

The intentions are honorable. Providing safe shelter from devastating storms is something no one can seriously argue with. 

 

But the reality is that tornadoes are unpredictable and emerge suddenly. Rarely do people seek shelter during a "tornado watch." And by the time the watch has been upgraded to a warning, there is little time to seek shelter. 

 

For all practical purposes, these types of shelters in north Mississippi are a questionable use of federal and local tax dollars. Oktibbeha County supervisors should focus their attention on other concerns that can produce tangible benefits to the community.

 

 

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