Community shelters can offer protection when storms threaten

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

Click here for the weather.

When the clouds begin to roil and forecasters warn people to take cover against threatening weather, one of the best options for many Northeast Mississippians is a community shelter.
Federal funding that came to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina has made above-ground storm bunkers a common sight around volunteer fire stations, city parks and other public spaces. Typically weighing more than 40,000 pounds and strapped to an army of anchors, most of the steel-reinforced-concrete shelters are designed to keep 15 to 25 people safe through almost any imaginable storm. Many locations have two such shelters; some have several.
Three counties are particularly well-equipped and are aware of this week’s severe weather awareness week.
In 2008, tornadoes hit Lafayette and Union counties hard in Oxford, Abbeville, Enterprise and New Albany. Longer ago, but even fresher in memory, is the Feb. 25, 2001, twister that dragged across Pontotoc County from southwest to northeast, causing six deaths and destroying or damaging hundreds of homes and other buildings.
Oktibbeha and Clay counties, on the other hand, have no community shelters, according to emergency management spokesmen.
“You have to depend on local knowledge, and recent memory of storms makes a big difference in motivation,” said Fred Griffin, a mitigation grant specialist with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Some areas still employ the basements of public buildings as storm shelters. The Alcorn County Courthouse and Corinth City Hall, for instance, have historically been the only community shelters in Alcorn County.
“MEMA has approved our initial application to have some more put in,” said Alcorn County’s emergency management coordinator, Ricky Gibens. “We hope to have 10 community shelters – one at each volunteer fire department. That puts a shelter within five road miles of just about every resident.”
Several other counties have similar applications, with special emphasis on places to keep local governments functional.
“This year MEMA has turned their attention to storm shelters to protect the first responders,” said Tippah County Emergency Management Director Tom Lindsey. Fire stations are a particular focus.
“A lot of times firefighters and other first responders will pre-stage at the fire department so they can be ready to go as soon as the storm has passed,” he said.
Two recognized needs for planning shelters, especially when they’re not connected to a fire department, are determining how they’re used and making someone responsible for them.
“There has not been any formal tracking as far as numbers of people that have used the shelters,” said David Shaw, Lafayette County’s emergency management coordinator. “One of my goals is to have a shelter monitor for each location … to make sure they are clean and ready to be occupied when the weather is threatening. This person would also report numbers of occupants for specific events.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or

• Go to the lowest level of the home, an inner hallway, or smaller inner room without windows, such as a closet or bathroom.
• Get away from windows and go to the center of the room. Avoid corners, because they tend to attract debris.
• Get under a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a workbench or heavy table.

• Evacuate the mobile home, even if it is equipped with tie-downs. Take shelter in a building with a strong foundation, or if one is not available, lie in a ditch or low-lying area a safe distance away from the mobile home. Tornadoes cannot change elevation quickly enough to pick someone up out of a ditch, especially a deep ditch or culvert.

• Go to the basement or to an inside hallway at the lowest level of the building.
• Avoid places with wide-span roofs, such as auditoriums, cafeterias, large hallways or shopping malls.
• Use your arms to protect your head and neck.

Click video to hear audio