By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
TIFFIN– On a 4-3 vote, the board of directors for the Clear Creek Amana school district rejected a proposed storm shelter in the new elementar to be built on Tiffin’s east side.
The shelter, a heavily reinforced music room, has been discussed since early January.
The new building is being designed to withstand winds of 90 miles per hour (mph). The room, on the east side of the building, could have been built to withstand 165 mph winds, equivalent to an EF-3 tornado at an additional cost of $50,000. Key to the discussion has been debate over what constitutes a “tornado-safe room,” and how much protection is enough. In addition, the cost and additional time to construct a room to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) standards (250 mph, or an EF-5 tornado) has been a point of contention.
In an effort to clarify funding options and requirements, Johnson County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) coordinator Dave Wilson addressed the board in a work session preceding the meeting. Board member Kevin Kinney had invited Wilson to speak to the board.
Wilson explained that “hazard mitigation” dollars are available through FEMA, and since the school district has participated in a countywide, multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan in the wake of the 2008 floods, the district would be eligible for such funds.
The mitigation grants, Wilson said, could be applied to “anything that minimizes damage, risk or reduction to property damage or loss of life.”
However, no such funds are available currently.
“Presently that pot of money is dried up. But, it recycles and replenishes every time Iowa, anywhere in the state, gets a disaster declaration,” Wilson said. “It’s always a good idea to have somewhat ‘shovel ready’ projects on the shelf.” Once a disaster declaration is made, the federal government asks the state’s emergency managers (like Wilson) if they have any eligible projects to fund. As an example, if the district had a FEMA-standard meeting tornado safe room designed and ready to build, he could submit the project for approval and funding. If such a request is made, it could take up to two years to actually receive the funds. Wilson said it took 18 months to get funding for some outdoor warning sirens.
But, Wilson noted, if the disaster declaration is due to a flood event, for example, then FEMA would give flood mitigation projects such as property buy-outs, a higher priority than tornado shelters. Likewise, if a wind event leads to the declaration, FEMA gives the nod to measures to mitigate future occurrences.
Wilson said he, and any emergency manager, would encourage high-occupancy facilities, like a school, to put in a “tornado-hardened” room of some sort.
In addition to being built to withstand stronger winds, a FEMA-certified room has other requirements, which Wilson and Shive-Hattery’s Keith Johnk reviewed. During the January discussions, Johnk pointed out a FEMA-certified room requires restroom facilities, emergency lighting and ventilation requirements, storage space for emergency supplies such as flashlights and at least six square feet of room per person.
Wilson pointed out the EMA office/Joint Communications Center was built to withstand a direct hit from an EF-5 tornado, but isn’t FEMA-certified due to features such as windows. However, ballistic glass was used with drop-down metal shutters, which are “hurricane rated,” and reinforced walls placed to prevent or contain any wind-blown debris from entering the vital parts of the structure, such as the dispatchers’ room. “It’s a bunker,” Wilson said.
Wilson also confirmed that historically in Johnson County, the majority of tornadoes have been in the EF-0 to EF-2 range. The “EF” scale refers to a system which rates tornadoes based on damage and the estimated wind speed it would take to create such damage. To date, Wilson said, an EF-3 (165 mph winds) is the worst to have hit the county. “It would be silly to build to EF-0 or EF-1,” he said. “Building to an EF-3 is a good bet.” It was his personal opinion that EF-3 should be the standard.
Wilson noted an upward trend in severe weather, adding he would always say some protection is better than none.
Emergency managers cringe at the thought of people taking shelter in hallways, Wilson said, even though that has been one of the primary shelters in schools for decades. The preference is for a dedicated and reinforced shelter.
The idea of a separate building connected to the new elementary was discussed, and superintendent Tim Kuehl asked Johnk for a “rough guess” what it would cost to design such a structure. Johnk, doing some fast mental computing, came up with a $90-$100,000 design cost on a potentially $1 million building able to accommodate the 450-500 people from the elementary. To build the proposed safe room to handle an EF-5 would cost approximately $250,000, “plus additional design time,” Johnk said.
Wilson was asked point-blank if he would put a tornado-safe room sticker on a room rated for an EF-3, he replied without any hesitation, “I damn-sure would.”
Kinney gave some insight on the board’s reluctance saying, “I thought we were basing the building off of North Bend Elementary (NBE), then we had this safe room thrown in, and tonight we have to make a decision (to accept the reinforced room as an alternate to the design package, or accept the original package without the reinforcement).” Johnk pointed out adding the shelter space came from discussions with the district’s administration team, specifically questions if such a feature was possible. He added the hallways at North Bend are not suitable as shelters due to the long-span roof over them. This means students and staff have to seek refuge in the restrooms, where the roof span is shorter. By designing the room to withstand and EF-3 tornado, Johnk said, “We felt the cost could be contained within the (approximately $17 million) budget.”
“If you are building a new school, to not build some kind of protection, that’s not good,” Wilson said. “Of course, everybody has to stay within their means.”
Board member Jim Seelman, who had voiced concerns over a reinforced concrete roof potentially being lifted off, and subsequently dropped on people in the room, emphasized the board’s top priority is the safety of the kids.
During the regular meeting, the discussion continued with board member Bob Broghammer echoing Kinney’s comments on using the NBE plans. “We told people we were saving money by using the North Bend plan, with upgrades to the current code.” He explained it felt like breaking faith with those who voted to approve the $48 million bond by adding-in an additional expense after the fact.
“I don’t feel like we’re doing enough,” Seelman said. He suggested taking the $50,000 and putting it toward the design and FEMA application process for a separate building on the site, which could provide shelter not only for the elementary, but the two additional buildings, which are likely to be built in the future.
“We don’t have the time or the money to build for the worst case,” said board member Rick Hergert, advocating for the EF-3 rated room. Hergert tried to present a package of research he had done on tornado-safe rooms, including proposed legislation at the state level and what schools, Parkersburg in particular, had done. Parkersburg’s high school took a direct hit from an EF-5 tornado in 2008.
“You can’t throw this on us,” Seelman argued, reiterating that an EF-3-rated room is not the best solution, and fumed that he and the rest of the board had not had sufficient time to research the options.
Superintendent Kuehl tried to move the discussion forward.
“This horse is beat,” Kuehl said. “Is it (the reinforced room) perfect? No. But, building for an EF-3 makes the most sense.” Kuehl recommended approving the EF-3-rated room, and taking a “big picture” look toward a solution for up to three buildings on the site, and having a FEMA-ready plan in place.
Board member Eileen Schmidt weighed-in, urging safety for the students. “We can’t plan for a tornado. We can do something now. Any child in this district is worth $50,000.” Board member Terry Davis also advocated for the room, saying it was something they could do to make the building safer and agreeing with the idea of a more substantial shelter on the site.
“I think we can make it better,” Kinney said. “It may take longer, but we can make it better and more cost effective.”
A roll-call vote was taken with Broghammer, Kinney, board president Steve Swenka and Seelman voting no, while Davis, Hergert and Schmidt voted yes.
A motion by Seelman to approve the design package without the safe room was derailed by board secretary Lori Robertson, who pointed out the board had already approved it in January. In its place a recommendation was made to approve the development phase for the elementary. This motion passed unanimously.