Public Shelters vs. Rebates for Private Ones

May 7, 2012

Tennessee is building more community tornado shelters while other states are using federal funds to help homeowners build their own.

WZTV-TV in Nashville reported the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spent $46 million over the last 10 years to build public shelters.

Last month, the cities of Dyersburg, Newbern and Halls in West Tennessee were awarded FEMA grants to construct safe rooms capable of withstanding the 250-mph winds of an EF5 tornado.

But in Oklahoma, in the heart of Tornado Alley, officials are reimbursing homeowners 75 percent of the cost of building approved shelters. A private shelter that cost $2,500 to build would cost a homeowner less than $700.

“I’m very appreciative of that, I think that is money well spent,” said Oklahoma County Emergency Management Director David Barnes.

Officials in Oklahoma are closing public shelters, saying it puts people at more risk to try to reach one when a tornado threatens.

Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas also offer rebates. Tennessee does not.

The station asked TEMA Director James Bassham about the different approaches.

“Good for Oklahoma,” Bassham said. “If people have the money and want to build a storm shelter, they ought to build them a storm shelter.”

However Bassham indicated Tennessee officials saw the need for community shelters.

Gov. Bill Haslam said he might be persuaded a change was needed, but he would need proof.

“I will say this, I tend to be data driven and if the facts show that other people are having better results, I think we should look at it,” said Governor Bill Haslam.

An increase in Tennessee’s population is also putting more people potentially in harm’s way.

Greg Carbin, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., noted Tennessee has nearly 25 percent more residents not than it did in 1990.

“It’s this sprawl that basically, conceptually makes a lot of sense, you’re increasing the target for tornadoes,” said Carbin.

Records show 8 people were killed in tornadoes in Tennessee in the 1980s, 36 in the 1990s and 100 in the last decade.

“I think that it’s probably the Wizard of Oz that brought about the idea that tornadoes are most common in the Great Plains states,” Carbin said.

The station reported about 43,000 people could be protected by shelters built through the TEMA program. The station estimated that upward of 138,000 people could have been protected if the same money had gone to subsidize shelters built by homeowners.

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