Tennessee's lack of storm shelters worries emergency leaders

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tornado siren
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Posted at 11:17 AM, Nov 08, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — In Middle Tennessee, residents are no stranger to dangerous storms. Even in the fall, Tennesseans have a heightened risk for severe weather.

Where can you go to keep your family safe if we have another deadly tornado outbreak like we did in March of 2020? Emergency management officials across the state agree that the lack of community storm shelters is a real problem during tornado season.

"You think it’s not going to happen to you until it does," said Tyler Smith, the director for Putnam County's Emergency Management Agency.

The deadly EF tornado killed 19 people in Putnam County in March of 2020. Smith says residents are left with the fear of the next big tornado. "It was the worst disaster Putnam County has ever had," said Smith.

Now, whenever severe storms are in the forecast, Smith said he gets multiple calls asking where families can go.

"We get a lot of calls from people worrying about what they are going to do when the storms come late at night when they are asleep," Smith explained.

The state of Tennessee recently adopted new codes that require homes to be built to withstand 115 mph winds. However, wind speeds can exceed that in EF2 or higher tornadoes. This means families need more options for safety, especially the most vulnerable population that live in mobile homes.

"Mobile homes are the worst place to be. Even strong thunderstorm winds can topple over a mobile home," Smith said.

Right now, the Putnam County library is the only safe shelter they have open in the county, but because of staffing and funding issues, they can't open it at night.

"That's just a big problem for us not having a shelter at night for people to come to," Smith said.

Putnam County is now looking into building its first FEMA-grade community storm shelter. Smith said they are building a new fairground in the county and are looking to possibly put the shelter there.

Local communities can apply for grant money to cover the high cost of building a storm shelter, but they must have the money to do so 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. This is something Smith said could cost a local government $50,000 to $100,000 before being reimbursed.

"Some of the smaller counties it’s harder to do with the funding," Smith said.

Ken Weidner, the director for Sumner County EMA office, said they recently upgraded their office to be a safe shelter, but it is not open to the public.

"Our emergency operations center was built to withstand an EF5 tornado. The walls in that building are 2-feet thick," Weidner said.

Weidner knows his area and the surrounding Metro counties are vulnerable to strong storms but questions if they can afford to build enough safe shelters for the number of people living here.

"A million people. Where do you put a million people in a storm-hard facility? Can we build enough structures to house that many people?" Weidner said.

Other buildings could be used, like churches, Smith explained.

"But many hesitate to do so due to liability issues. Most churches are scared of someone getting hurt and the liability on their part,"Smith said.

So how can we fix this issue and make sure our state is better prepared for another big tornado outbreak?

Coming up Tuesday on NewsChannel 5, we look to our neighbors to the south and find out how the state of Alabama was able to get community storm shelters in communities across the state.