TOPEKA, Kan. -- When a tornado strikes, nothing is more important than keeping your loved ones safe. But what if your children are at school? Is there a safe place for children to go when a tornado threatens?
That's the question Reno County officials asked themselves after a May 4, 1999 tornado touched down in the city of Buhler . School children were on their way to a track meet when they saw the tornado in the distance.
Luckily, no one in Buhler was harmed and school officials were able to get the kids to safety. But Reno County Emergency Manager Bill Guy knew the community needed to take pro-active steps to make sure local school children are safe during severe weather.
As a result of the May 4 tornado, Reno County received a Presidential disaster declaration and individuals who sustained damage received financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The disaster declaration also made Reno County eligible for FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) for damage-prevention projects.
The Kansas Division of Emergency Management (KDEM), which administers FEMA's mitigation programs in the state, and the Kansas Hazard Mitigation Team (KHMT) determined the best use of mitigation funds would be to construct tornado shelters in Kansas schools.
This was good news for Reno County.
Reno County received more than $1.3 million in hazard mitigation funds to build safe rooms in five schools: Fairfield Junior/Senior High School, Reno Valley Middle School , Nickerson Grade School , South Hutchinson Grade School , and Prairie Hills Middle School . The safe rooms were completed in 2003.
"We've been extremely happy with this project,"Reno County Emergency Manager Bill Guy said. "Having a safe place for our children during severe weather is a priority for all of us."
Reno County 's decision to participate in the mitigation project also spurred a shelter construction program at two other schools. Both Trinity High School and Holy Cross Elementary School constructed safe rooms for their students through a combination of federal, state and local dollars.
Safe rooms in school buildings must conform to strict design and construction criteria to provide the best protection during severe weather. These guidelines are based on the results of laboratory testing, engineering analysis and real-world experience with the performance of buildings during tornadoes and other severe-wind events. Safe rooms like the ones in Reno County are built to FEMA standards for structural strength, accessibility, reliability and the comfort of shelter occupants.
The success of Reno County 's school shelter program is largely due to local officials' foresight and the cooperative efforts of the State of Kansas and FEMA. By taking pro-active measures now, these Reno County schools have ensured that school children can be in the safest place possible during severe weather.
For more information on safe rooms, visit www.fema.gov/plan/prevent/saferoom/. For more information on disaster planning, visit the Kansas Division of Emergency Management’s preparedness website at www.kansas.gov/kdem/planning/preparedness.shtml or visit the Department of Homeland Security’s www.ready.gov.