NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Emergency managers across Tennessee say families in their communities need more safe options open to the public during severe weather events.
What can Tennessee do to help get more community storm shelters? We traveled down to Alabama to learn how local governments there were able to offer more community storm shelters across their state.
"Even though it is built to only hold about 86-87 people, it has held as many as 120 people during the height of storm season so it is very well received," Scott Worhsam with the Huntsville Emergency Management Office said while showing us one of their FEMA storm shelters.
Worsham says the big push to offer more safe places across Alabama happened after the deadly tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011. More than 200 people died in Alabama during that event. These shelters are run by volunteers and local governments across the state that determine if the shelter would be opened.
"It was just tornado warning after tornado warning. Supercell after supercell," Worsham said. "We had people that probably did the right thing sheltering in their homes, the best protected area in their homes, but it just wasn’t enough."
The FEMA storm shelters are built to withstand 250 mph winds, which would survive an EF5 tornado. "This is going to survive when some of those other structures are going to fail," Worsham said.
Local governments can apply for grant money to build FEMA community shelters, but they must have the money before the shelter is built. These projects are funded under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program following a federally declared disaster. If the local government applies for and is awarded the grant money the funding is split 75% federal government and 25% by the local government. The local governments are reimbursed 75% of the cost once the shelter is built.
So how can Tennessee learn from how Alabama grew its community shelter program? Worsham says communities should start small.
"Find a way to make it possible. Try to think a little bit out of the box to get funding for them," Worsham urged. "You have to start somewhere, even if it’s one shelter. Start there and add another one."
Alabama state leaders recently passed the "Safer Places" law requiring the state EMA to develop uniform guidelines for use in identifying and volunteering safer places throughout the state. It also reduces the liability on churches and other organizations who sign up to be a community safe room. Tyler Smith with the Putnam County EMA office says his department is looking into building a storm shelter. He believes Tennessee should pass a similar law to encourage churches to sign up for areas who can't afford one.
"You would think that they would go ahead and start looking at that as much severe weather as we get and night time tornadoes. You would think the state would step up and say, hey we need to do this.' You hope that they will look into it in the future to save lives," Smith said.
Despite the massive loss of life, Worsham believes the 2011 tornado outbreak has since saved lives over the last decade. "Without a doubt it has. It has increased awareness of the people who live here," Worsham said.
He hopes Tennessee leaders won't wait for the next deadly outbreak to happen to get the ball rolling on community storm shelters.
"It’s not a question of if this will ever happen again, its when," he warned.
You can check with your county in Tennessee to see if they do have any churches or other buildings that open up to the community as a safe room. Local leaders say it's up to the organization to inform the pubic they have the staff to open during severe weather. That has also been more challenging with COVID-19.
We did reach out to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency for this story. They say it is completely up to local governments to apply for grant money to get a FEMA storm shelter. There are a handful of safe room projects in Middle Tennessee you can view that list by clicking here.