McLean, VA (written by Judy Keen/USA Today) -- When Maplesville, Ala., opened a community storm shelter in 2007, some residents complained that it was a waste of money, says town clerk Sheila Haigler.
That changed in April 2011 when a tornado leveled nearby Tuscaloosa. When another tornado raked across Maplesville this January, more than 100 people in the town of 705 "just swarmed in there" to ride out the storm, Haigler says. "People have come to respect the weather."
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and recent deadly tornadoes have helped spawn a boom in the construction of community shelters, also known as safe rooms. Unlike small home storm cellars, they're designed to take in large numbers of people.
The Alabama Emergency Management Agency is processing about 250 applications for community safe rooms to accommodate 40 to 350 people, says spokeswoman Yasamie August.
Mississippi made community shelters a priority after Katrina, says Greg Flynn of the state's Emergency Management Agency. Since then, 38 community safe rooms with space for 29,400 people have been built. The 26 now under construction will accommodate 15,200 more.
Missouri's State Emergency Management Agency has helped oversee construction of 55 safe rooms built since 2005, says spokesman Mike O'Connell. Thirteen more are under construction, and 24 are awaiting approval.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency encourage community shelters by awarding grants to help pay for them. Since 1999, FEMA has helped fund 1,334 community safe rooms in 20 states, including 235 in 2011, up from 124 in 2010.
The city of Chicago is seeking bids for stand-alone tornado shelters at O'Hare and Midway international airports. Jefferson County, Ala., plans to build five that each will hold 62 to 250 people. Voters in Joplin, Mo., hit hard by a May 2011 tornado, approved a $62 million bond issue in April for safe rooms at five schools.
On Monday, a 10,000-square-foot safe room that can shelter 882 people will open in Forrest County, Miss. Its goal, says Kara Drane of the county planning department: "Protect the public during disasters and prevent the future loss of life."
Sanctuary for hundreds
Tuttle, Okla., is building a $3 million City Hall that includes a windowless shelter for 985 people that also will be used as city council chambers and recreation room.
"There has been a strong interest in getting a community storm shelter" since a 1999 tornado, says Tim Young, city manager in the town of 6,000. Construction won't be complete until fall, he says, but during recent storms, "people called and asked, 'Can we use it yet?' "
Brad Erwin, a Springfield, Mo., architect, says most commercial structures are built to withstand 90-mph winds; community shelters often can endure winds of 250 mph. An EF-5 tornado, the most severe, has winds exceeding 200 mph.
The structures must be able to survive debris driven by high winds, Erwin says. New technology, he says, links shelters to warning sirens or radio signals. When a tornado warning is issued, doors automatically unlock, ventilation is turned on and security cameras are activated.
Erwin helped design a community safe room planned for Fair Grove, Mo., that will use that new technology. Once the shelter - which will have room for 1,100 people - is built, it also will be used as an auxiliary gym attached to the middle school, says school Superintendent John Link.
A wind storm called a derecho hit Fair Grove in 2009, lifting the roof off the high school while 350 students were inside, Link says. This spring, three-quarters of voters in the town of 1,300 supported a bond issue to help pay for the shelter.
"When you have a storm of the magnitude of the one we had, with kids in the building, people understand," he says.
'A good idea'
Even before Branson, Mo., was slammed by a tornado in February, the city was considering building a shelter, says Cindy Shook, parks and recreation director. A final decision hasn't been made, but it would have 7,700 square feet and room for 1,200 people.
"I can't imagine anyone thinking it would not be a good idea," she says.
The new safe room on the campus of Plainview School in Rainsville, Ala., has been finished for a couple of months. In April 2011, a tornado blasted through the K-12 school when no students were inside, says Principal Ronald Bell.
The new shelter was built for 650 people, but in drills, all 1,050 students fit inside, he says. Its foundation is sunk 5 feet below ground, and its eight modules are welded to the foundation and to each other.
"I used to feel good about asking students to go out in the hallways and put a book over their heads" when bad weather was approaching, he says. Now, it's "an even better feeling" to know that the shelter is there when it's needed.