Posted by: Michael Byrne, Federal Coordinating Officer
Last week, the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and FEMA hosted the Safer Alabama Summit conference in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The aim of this conference was to get the word out about the important role that safe rooms can play in protecting families and communities, and federal funding that is available to build them. I wanted to share a conversation that was the perfect conclusion to the event.
Tuscaloosa, Ala., June 13, 2011 -- Federal Coordinating Officer, Michael Byrne, presents at the Safer Alabama Summit.
Following the conference, a woman wanted to know how to apply for a grant to finance the construction of a safe room in a school in her community. She was a local councilwoman and she had heard about schools that had been destroyed during the devastating tornadoes of April 27. An elementary school principal in the town of Moulton sent his students home rather than have them shelter in the designated area in the hallway. It was a good thing he did, because many of the children would have been severely injured, or killed, since the roof and walls of the school caved in.
I told the councilwoman what many of the speakers at the summit had emphasized: it all starts with the community. Residents notify their local emergency manager or other appropriate local official about their interest in building a safe room or shelter. The local official then writes a letter to notify the state that the community will be applying for a hazard mitigation grant from FEMA. If the funding is granted, the state manages the program to make sure the final product meets specifications.
“We have a city council meeting at the end of the week, and I’m bringing a letter to notify the state that we will be applying for a grant from FEMA,” she said.
That is exactly what I hoped people would take away from the conference. Safe rooms and shelters come in all shapes and sizes. You can get a small one to stash in your garage, which fits three people. Or you can get a larger one built to serve as a safe haven for members of a school or office. They start at about $3,000 and run upwards depending on how big you make it. And just as a note, communities will only receive a grant to reimburse them if the safe rooms are built to FEMA specifications, which can withstand winds up to 250 mph (an EF-5 tornado).
I hope that the local officials who attended the summit will go back to their communities and look for opportunities and locations for safe rooms, and then, in conjunction with state, federal and other agencies, work on ways to fund and install them. I’m hoping to hear more stories from those writing letters of intent, not only from those in Alabama but also from others across the country.