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In-Ground Safe Room Protects Jefferson County Family

JEFFERSON COUNTY, AL – When an EF-5 tornado struck the western part of Jefferson County, Alabama, near Birmingham, on April 8, 1998, Rebecca Henderson and her family had taken refuge under her mobile home. Damage to Henderson’s home was major. The front door and left side were gone. Yet, she considered herself lucky because the church next door was completely destroyed. The sight of the destruction convinced her that she needed a safe room.

“When I saw what had happened to my home and the church next door as well as the one down the street, I was convinced that I needed to get a safe room,” said Henderson. “We used to live in Pratt City and during the storms we would go over to my uncle’s house and would get in his storm shelter. When we bought the mobile home and moved here, we would get under it during tornado warnings. That was scary.”

The devastating tornado had cut a 30.6-mile path through Birmingham area towns. More than 1,000 homes were destroyed, and more than 400 had damage to 50 percent or more of their structure. Several hundred more homes, apartments, and businesses were damaged or destroyed. The final death toll was 32, most resulting from flying debris.

Feeling insecure about seeking shelter under her mobile home, Henderson decided to prepare for future storms. She had read the information provided in a local newspaper regarding Alabama’s safe room initiative and the application process. Henderson applied for a grant.

Funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), Alabama’s Taking Shelter from the Storm Safe Room Initiative was implemented in December 2000 as a result of a tornado event and subsequent Presidential declared disaster on December 16, 2000. Twelve people were killed, and more than 300 persons injured. Several hundred homes were destroyed or damaged.

The purpose of HMGP is to reduce the loss of life and property in future disasters by funding mitigation measures during the recovery phase of a disaster. FEMA provides up to 75 percent of the funding, with the remainder coming from the state or applicant or both. The state administers the program and selects the projects with approval by FEMA. Applicants, who must have FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plans, may be states, local governments, Indian tribes, or certain nonprofits. Funds can be used for long-term mitigation measures, including protection of public or private property.

In 2001, Henderson became a grant recipient. She purchased a prefabricated in-ground safe room. Total cost, including installation, was $4,715. She was reimbursed $3,500, the amount of the grant.

“We were first in our area to get a safe room. We were given a list of approved safe rooms and we chose this one,” said Henderson. “I like it,” added her son, Tyler. “It makes me feel real safe.”

Since installation, Henderson has used her safe room during several tornadic events, including the tornado outbreak in April 2011.

“We did get in our safe room during the storms, but they didn’t do much damage to this area. We just had a lot of wind-blown debris,” said Henderson. “Most residents here live in mobile homes. Some refuse to leave them during the storm. If you are going to live in one, you need to get a safe room.”

To prevent damage in the future, HMGP money helped construction of more than 1,200 safe rooms as of December 31, 2010. Of these, approximately 1,100 are individual safe rooms with an average reimbursement of $2,910 to the owner. Additional community safe rooms have been constructed at an average reimbursement of $20,800.

People considering purchasing a safe room should make certain that it is verified by the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA). NSSA is a non-profit organization with a quality verification and seal program. Members of the NSSA that manufacture and construct residential safe rooms submit their designs to the NSSA for third-party design reviews to ensure verification of compliance with FEMA 320 criteria. This organization is also helpful in validating vendor claims of compliance with FEMA criteria for safe rooms. Their website, http://www.nssa.cc, is a good source for verified safe room vendors.

For additional information, contact the FEMA Safe Room Help Line at 866-222-3580 or at saferoom@dhs.gov. The help line provides information on where to go for assistance regarding hazard mitigation grants and other grant funding, project eligibility, and guidelines for safe room construction. FEMA’s safe room web site (http://www.fema.gov/plan/prevent/saferoom) is another source of information. Also visit http://www.ema.alabama.gov.

Last updated June 3, 2020