The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 29, 2013

Officials prefer use of personal storm shelters

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Public storm shelters are not the preferred method of storm safety, because of the inherent problems of overcrowding and inability of people to get there in time, local officials say.

Mike Honigsberg, certified director of Enid and Garfield County Emergency Management, said he does not favor public shelters.

“People have a tendency to wait too long before they decide to go,” Honigsberg said.

His office has for years been compiling a registry of private shelters in Enid so emergency personnel will know where to look for people in the event of an emergency.

Woodward City Manager Alan Riffel said his community has no public shelters. Its policy is to encourage sheltering in place, using private shelters, rather than having people seek a public location.

“When warnings are given, our policy is to advise people to shelter in place,” Riffel said.

A number of people have told Riffel they were installing shelters in their garages. After the April 2012 Woodward tornado, which caused heavy damage and six deaths, there was a noticeable increase in the installation of tornado shelters.

“We were aware there was a backlog for providers coming in to build a number of them,” Riffel said.

Midwest City, Riffel said, had a public shelter but discontinued it because people waited too long to seek safety, and overwhelming numbers of people were coming to the shelter.

“People were bringing their pets, and when it is full, how do you turn people away?” he said.

Garber Mayor Sam Strecker said the town does not provide a public shelter, but most churches in the community offer shelters. There also is a safe room in the elementary school, which is open to the public, he said.

“Since I’ve been mayor, we haven’t discussed it. The school has capacity for quite a few,” he said.

Waukomis Fire Chief Clarence Maly said the community has no public shelter, but the school district has discussed a dual-purpose building that would benefit both the school and the public.

“We use the Christian Church and that’s the only thing we’ve got,” he said.

First Christian Church has a capacity of 150 people, but there are about 80 private storm shelters registered in the community, Maly said.

Waukomis Public Schools has put forth a bond issue to be voted on Nov. 12 to spend $2.49 million to build a physical education facility that would double as a storm shelter holding about 1,500 people.

“The school is trying to implement it as a joint venture, and fund it, but we don’t know how that will work — it’s kind of new territory,” Maly said.

In Kingfisher County, only Hennessey has a public shelter, said Steve Loftis, Kingfisher City/County Emergency Management director. Towns without a public shelter use facilities in their schools, if those are available. Kingfisher has an agreement to use public school facilities, Loftis said.

Hennessey’s shelter is on the south side of the public library. Use of the shelter varies, depending on the time the storm occurs. If the storm arrives during a ballgame or rodeo with a lot of people in town, the public shelter will be used. But if the storm occurs during a time people can use their home shelters, officials prefer they stay put, Loftis said.

Loftis said there are both good and bad aspects of public shelters. He said the county could apply for money to build them, but they must meet criteria to make sure they are safe.

“We don’t want people out at the last minute with the storm bearing down on them,” Loftis said.

Kingfisher has a middle school with two safe rooms and a basement shelter at another school. A number of people in the county have installed their own storm shelters since the deadly Moore tornado in May. There is a company in Kingfisher that builds and installs storm shelters, Loftis said.

The Rev. John McLemore, of Central Christian Church in Enid, said the church’s basement always is open during storms.

“We’ve done that about 10 years. It’s available to anybody,” McLemore said.

The youth center area primarily is used and crowds usually are low, but there have had as many as 120 people there, he said.

“Two or three years ago, they were forecasting some really bad weather and doing a lot of advance warning. People showed up as early as 4 p.m.,” he said.

Church member Don Driscoll is in charge of the facility, and McLemore said he is sensitive to storms and has the doors open long before sirens sound. There also is a backup system for making sure someone is available to open the shelter.

Pets are welcome if they are on a leash or in a cage. There is cable television access downstairs, and when they had the large crowd, people talked and played games or gathered around the TV watching the storm, McLemore said.

The lights have never gone out, but there is an emergency lighting system in case they do. The church prefers people enter through the south door off Maine and go to the basement.

McLemore said the basement is built of concrete and steel, and he thinks it could take a direct hit and not be affected.