Winning the 'lottery': State gambles on storm shelter safety
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, April 29, 2012
4/29/12 at 3:27 AM
Five hundred Oklahomans won the "lottery" in January. Their bonanza didn't go toward new cars or trips to Paris; winners instead threw their winnings down a hole.
They were playing by the rules of the SoonerSafe lottery, an annual random drawing that selected 500 residents to receive rebates for mostly underground storm shelters. The good news is that 500 more households now have a fighting chance against killer tornadoes; the bad news is that the state cannot afford to extend the program to 15,500 others who applied for help but won't get it. Their names, however, will remain on the application list, a list that almost certainly will grow as more Oklahomans apply for the next rebate - www.soonersafe.ok.gov.
That rebate pays for 75 percent of costs, up to $2,000. Funds come from Federal Mitigation Relief Grants, and are administered by the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
"We want people to be as safe as possible," said Keli Cain, ODEM spokeswoman. "Hopefully, these rebates will help make it more affordable."
Imagine the increased safety to residents if the state were able to kick in a few million more dollars to offset the cost of building shelters. Unfortunately, that's not likely. Continuing tax cuts along with a drop in gross production tax revenues mean the state's not going to have any extra money in the foreseeable future.
That's not the news those living (and dying) in tornado alley want to hear. State and federal governments certainly cannot be expected to pay entirely for individual storm shelters, which can range in price from $2,500 to $8,000. But any help - through rebates or tax credits - the federal or state government can provide enhances public safety. Oklahomans already are somewhat safer from killer storms than they were more than a decade ago. Thanks to several programs, 14,000 homeowners and nearly 100 public facilities have added storm shelters with federal funds administered through the state.
That push to add more residential and public-facility storm shelters and safe rooms began shortly after May 3, 1999, one of the most lethal days in state history. Seventy tornadoes ravaged 16 Oklahoma counties, killing 44 people, injuring 800 others and causing catastrophic damage - particularly in Moore, where nearly 90 percent of the structures destroyed were individual homes.
The following month, Gov. Frank Keating, along with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, unveiled a first-in-the-nation safe-room rebate program. That $12 million grant funded 6,016 residential safe rooms and underground shelters.
In mid-1999, Tulsa became the first area in the state with a proposed initiative to include safe rooms in new homes and to retrofit older homes. Later that year, a team of local builders built Legacy Park in Bixby, believed to be the first subdivision in which every home came equipped with a safe room.
The number of shelters in public facilities also started to grow. One of those, built in 2005, saved nearly 100 men, women and children in Atoka County. On April 14, 2011, residents had crowded into the new, above-ground, concrete-reinforced safe room adjacent to the Tushka pre-school. A tornado, packing 165-mph winds, tore the tiny town apart. But every single person who took refuge in Tushka's two public shelters - the other is 90 years old - walked out alive that night. Two elderly sisters, who had not sought safety, died in the storm's fury. The Tushka mayor later said that but for the new safe room the death toll would have been far higher.
Tulsa Public Schools is in the process of finalizing its FEMA Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. An approved plan would allow TPS to apply for FEMA funds and build school safe rooms.
There's no question but that the rebates do help. They encourage more people to invest in shelters who might not do so otherwise. Toward that goal, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., last year proposed a $2,500 federal rebate.
Locally, a group has been discussing a potential safe room project with the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said Roger C. Jolliff, Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency director.
"While residential safe rooms in homes and below ground are an excellent idea to protect one's family, I encourage everyone to have a disaster plan to insure they are actually getting severe weather watch and warning information prior to the impact of a storm," Jolliff said.
"If someone cannot install a safe room, they should still identify the safest place in their residence, usually a small interior room. People should remember that the vast majority of tornadoes are below the EF-4 and EF-5 level that are the most severe. Most of these tornadoes are survivable if you take advantage of available cover in your home."
The value of safe rooms or underground shelters in individual homes as well as in multifamily housing complexes, mobile home parks and at public facilities cannot be over-emphasized. Tornadoes kill nearly 80 people on average each year across the country. In the past 14 months, more than 120 tornadoes have struck Oklahoma. Twenty people perished in the storms.
Given the number of tornado fatalities, storm shelters are a subject that absolutely must stay on policymakers' radar - rain or shine.
Original Print Headline: Winning the 'lottery'
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379
Lloyd and Connie Rose have not had to use their new storm shelter yet, but they are happy they have it in case of tornado. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World