TUSCALOOSA COUNTY, AL – The Alabama-Arkansas–Mississippi tornado outbreak affected portions of the southern United States from Arkansas to Alabama on November 23rd and –November 24th,, 2001, with additional tornadoes recorded in Louisiana. As one of the most intense November outbreaks ever to occur in that area, tornadoes from that event killed at least 13 people across three states, including 4 in Alabama, 4 in Arkansas, and 5 in Mississippi. On December 7, 2001, the State of Alabama received a presidential declaration due to private property damage or loss from the violent weather. Under the declaration, Federal funds were provided to the state on a cost-shared basis for approved projects that reduce future disaster risks.
“I was blessed,” said Gloria Shaw, a resident of Tuscaloosa, who a participant in a pilot program to fund residential safe rooms. “I got one of the safe rooms that the state was giving away. I feel so much safer than not having anything. I get to use it at least once a year. I used it during the storms that occurred on April 15 and April 27.”, referring to the tornadic events of April 2011 that left a death toll of 250. On both dates, Shaw left work to seek shelter in her safe room.
The program that made Shaw’s safe room possible was FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). HMGP sponsored pilot programs in Alabama and Mississippi to encourage the construction of safe rooms in tornado-prone regions of these states. HMGP provides grants to states and local governments to implement long-term hazard mitigation measures after a major disaster declaration. The purpose of the HMGP is to reduce the loss of life and property due to natural disasters and to enable mitigation measures to be implemented during the immediate recovery from a disaster.
Before initiating the grant program, FEMA developed standards for safe room construction. Engineering studies resulted in standards for anchors to resist overturning and uplifting wind forces, plus high resistance to horizontal wind pressure, flying debris, and heat. Additional information can be found in FEMA 320, Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business (http://www.fema.gov/library/viewRecord.do?id=1536).
Without knowing the amount of funding or the number of safe rooms that could be purchased under the pilot program, the county encouraged residents to apply. The response was greater than the supply. The county wanted to make certain that each applicant had a fair chance at securing grant funding. Each application was assigned a number and the applicant was given a ticket with the corresponding number for a chance at receiving $3,000.00 toward the purchase of a safe room.
As a grant recipient, Shaw paid an additional $2,000 to construct her safe room. “I paid the extra money because I didn’t want the safe room buried in the ground,” said Shaw. “My grandmother had what was called a ‘storm pit.’ As a child I was always afraid of getting in it. It was too dark in there.” Prior to February 2002, the date the safe room was installed, Shaw had to seek shelter in her hallway or bathroom. “There was always the uncertainty as to whether sheltering space was adequate, said Shaw. “That’s no longer an issue.”
To help with compliance, the nonprofit National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) offers 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. NSSA 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 finding verified safe room vendors.
For additional information, contact the FEMA Safe Room Help Line at 866-222-3580 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.