Safety in the storm

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In the wake of the Moore, Okla., tornado that struck at the heart of that community by leveling two schools, Cassville R-4 School District patrons can rest a little easier when sirens sound, knowing their students will soon be able to seek refuge in two FEMA-rated shelters.

One of the shelters, which is currently under construction where the old middle school field house once stood, will be open by the start of school in August. The shelter will double as a performing arts center, and at just over 11,000 square feet, is big enough to serve every student in kindergarten through eighth grade, plus teachers, staff and volunteers who might be on campus when a tornado warning is issued. A second 5,000-square-foot shelter to serve Cassville High School has just entered the design phase and is slated for completion in 2014.

Once the first FEMA shelter is finished, Superintendent Richard Asbill said community meetings will be held to review FEMA protocol for citizens' use of the shelter. The structures are built primarily for student safety but also will be open to citizens who live in a certain radius of the shelter and others who might be on or near the campus when a tornado warning hits.

According to the FEMA website, a safe room or shelter is a hardened structure specifically designed to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criteria and provide near-absolute protection in extreme weather events, including tornadoes. Near-absolute protection means that, based on current knowledge of tornadoes and hurricanes, the occupants of a safe room or shelter that is built in accordance with FEMA guidance will have a very high probability of being protected from injury or death. To be considered a FEMA safe room, the structure must be designed and constructed to FEMA guidelines.

In the case of both shelter structures on the R-4 campus, FEMA guidelines are being followed, which is a prerequisite for qualifying for FEMA grant money. These structures will be rated to withstand an F5 tornado, the highest rating on the Fujita scale.

After touring the FEMA structure on the middle school campus and learning about plans for the second shelter, I am convinced both buildings will provide our youngest and most vulnerable citizens with a safe place to ride out any storm, no matter how severe.

I applaud the Cassville R-4 School Board for pursuing FEMA funding for the shelters and partnering with Paragon Architecture, a Springfield firm that seems to understand the safety needs of school districts through the construction of multi-use safe rooms. By combining FEMA grant money with local tax money, the district is able to get more for their investment. Safety for the school and community is achieved, and at the same time, facilities are expanded to meet the educational and extracurricular needs of students.

When both FEMA-rated buildings are complete, every Cassville R-4 student, teacher and staff member will have a safe retreat in the face of a life-threatening tornado. Thanks Cassville School Board for putting student safety first and providing that kind of peace of mind to a caring community. ~ Lisa Schlichtman