LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded more than $1 million to the state of Arkansas for construction of a tornado safe room at Vilonia High School in Faulkner County.
FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will pay 75 percent, or $1,000,440, of the more than $1.3 million project. The community began the grant application process about a year ago. Nearly 40 school districts in Arkansas have received safe room grants in the last five years, according to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.
The stand-alone safe room, to be built on campus, will measure more than 6,500 square feet and should accommodate nearly 1,150 people during a severe storm or tornado.
"This is great news, and I'm very happy about it," said Frank Mitchell, superintendent of the Vilonia Public Schools. "People here are going to respond very positively to this news."
Dr. Mitchell does not know when work will begin on the new structure, which will double as a physical education facility, but promised it would happen soon. "We're going to come out running and we'll build it as quickly as possible."
Vilonia recently suffered fatalities and major damage when tornadoes hit the central Arkansas town in late April. Dr. Mitchell said that recent event changed the perspectives of many people in town.
"People here are respectful of tornadoes now," Dr. Mitchell said. "A lot of people who would have said, 'I won't go to a shelter, it's just another false alarm,' now realize the damage that can be done."
The idea for the community project did not stem from a particular incident, although the recent tornado brought into sharp focus the need for a large-scale shelter.
"It justified the need," Dr. Mitchell said. "It didn't hit the campus, but that would have been a great place for people to go. And probably a lot more people will use it now that they've seen the consequences."
The school superintendent calls himself "a believer" when it comes to safe rooms, and with good reason. Last fall, he began work on an above-ground safe room on his property, and had recently completed it when the April storms struck his home.
"I was in it when the tornado came -- I had just gotten all the bolts on the door," he said. "It was a great feeling to be in that safe room."
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