CHEROKEE COUNTY, AL – After Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and several subsequent tornadoes wreaked destruction upon areas surrounding Leesburg, AL, Mayor Edward Mackey decided his town needed a safe place for its residents. In 2008, Leesburg became the first town in Cherokee County to receive federal funds to build a community safe room.
During the tornado outbreak in late April 2011, the dual purpose safe room opened its doors for the first time and had more people show up than ever expected. The long-range planning of this mitigation measure proved its worth almost as soon as it opened.
“We just had the dedication ceremony and used it for a Chamber of Commerce breakfast on the 21st and the storms hit almost one week later,” recalls Mayor Mackey.
When the sirens sounded on April 27th, many people from various nearby areas arrived to seek shelter from the storms. The residents heeded the advice of the local news station and, although the storm did not affect Leesburg, the community was ready for anything.
“This time we were spared and the storm just missed us,” said Mackey.
Designed according to the criteria in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA's) publication FEMA 361, Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms, the 2,500-square-foot safe room is reinforced to withstand 250-mile per hour winds. It is equipped with a diesel operated emergency generator that can supply electricity in case the power goes out in the town. It has restrooms and a supply of water for those temporarily using the safe room.
“Currently the Cherokee County Emergency Management Director is working to get more weather radios and other essentials for a temporary stay in the safe room,” said Mackey. “We are also using our own funds to install cameras on the outside of the building so we can monitor the weather conditions outside while we are inside.”
Funded partially through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), this safe room was approved at a total cost of $420,652. FEMA supplied 75 percent of that cost, leaving the remaining 25 percent for Leesburg to fund. HMGP provides states up to 75 percent of necessary funding for mitigation projects that are approved following disasters.
A community safe room in a rural area, like Leesburg, is ideal for the local residents to have in the event of severe weather. Mayor Mackey strongly feels that the safe room will be used often, especially after the mass amounts of casualties that occurred during April’s tornado outbreak.
“Before we had the safe room, there was not a real safe place for the people to go,” he said. “This is the best way to use tax dollars to help a community.”