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On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado tore through Joplin and neighboring Duquense, killing 161 people.As part of KSMU's quarterly Sense of Community series May 18-23, we examined the recovery efforts since the storm.View our stories below to hear from city leaders and community members about the rebuilding challenges, successes, and resiliency of those involved over these past five years. You'll learn about the Disaster Recovery Summit, a two-day event bringing together citizens and leaders from other tornado-stricken communities to assess recovery efforts, how tornado safe rooms have become commonplace in southwest Missouri since the storm, and how the city and school are honoring those lost as a result of the tornado.

Since Joplin Tornado, Dozens of Safe Rooms Built in Area Schools, Communities

Emily McTavish

The number of Federal Emergency Management Agency safe rooms in Missouri has more than doubled since an EF5 tornado hit Joplin in 2011. According to the State Emergency Management Agency, 72 FEMA safe rooms were completed across the state between 2012 and February of this year.

Joplin now has 14 total community safe rooms, with the newest one inside Columbia Elementary. Jim Hounschell, director of safety and security at Joplin Public Schools, says prior to the tornado, there weren’t any safe rooms for either the students or the public.

“There are a lot of areas and they just can’t afford their own safe rooms within their garage or wherever,” Hounschell says. “So this is a great benefit to them.”

FEMA assists in funding the construction of safe rooms through either the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program or Pre-Disaster Mitigation Funds. To qualify, a community must have experienced a major disastrous event. The FEMA grants will pay for up to 75 percent of the project to build the shelter, and the school district or community must pay for the other 25 percent.

The tornado in Joplin caused not just the school district there but many around the state to reexamine safety procedures. That includes Nixa Public Schools.

Zac Rantz, the chief communications officer for the Nixa school district, went to Joplin after the tornado to assist in relief efforts.

“When people talk about it I can still smell stuff, and it’s just the weirdest experience. It’s like fresh cut grass and natural gas. It’s a mixture of that smell. If you can think of what that smells like, that’s the smell that comes to my head,” he said.

Seeing the damage in Joplin changed Rantz’s perspective about what needed to be done in Nixa.

“But I think we saw what the possibility was if a tornado were to hit a community in general—just flatten out a community—and also what would happen if it hit a school during the school day,” Rantz says. “I really think that had Joplin been in school that day that the story would have been a little different.”

Rantz actually wrote a whole book about this called Hindsight: Lessons Learned from the Joplin Tornado.

“We’ve taken those lessons and kind of tried to learn from it and adjust what we do versus what we had done in the past,” Rantz says.

Two safe rooms were actually authorized before the Joplin tornado, he says. And these days, half of the district’s buildings have safe rooms.

For the schools without, the procedure during a severe weather event is to move students to interior rooms, rather than the old method of seeking shelter in the hallways.

“After looking at Joplin, some of the places that were the least damaged were inside classrooms or in closets or those bathrooms or something like that,” Rantz says. “There’s still damage but they were more intact, and the hallways were actually some of the most dangerous spots.”

For those without a safe room in their homes or in their community, the National Weather Service recommends taking shelter in the lowest point in a house such as a basement or in an interior closet or bathroom.

Nixa’s safe rooms are open to the public during regular school hours, with the exception of the John Thomas School of Discovery. The safe rooms in the Joplin Public Schools are also open to the public.

“We have what we call a zone around each of the safe rooms, like a half mile radius or a five-minute walking distance, and those are the people we really speak to as far as come and take part in the shelter if you need to,” Hounschell says. “Beyond that, we really encourage them to find some other safe place to go within their home if they have to. We don’t want to put anybody in danger by encouraging them to come to the safe room if they live a long distance away.”

Hounschell notes to check with your local school district to find out if and when the safe rooms near you are open, as some may not be accessible to the public during school hours.

Safe Room Construction

FEMA defines a safe room as “a hardened structure specifically designed to protect its occupants from extreme weather events, including tornadoes and hurricanes.” The design parameters must reach FEMA’s set criteria to withstand extreme wind speeds, wind pressure and wind-borne debris impacts.

In schools, safe rooms are often gyms, cafeterias or performing arts centers.

Brian Orr, vice president of the engineering firm TOTH and Associates, says a safe room is constructed like it’s on steroids to resist damage or turning over in a severe weather event.

Credit Emily McTavish / KSMU
FEMA safe rooms, like at Nixa Junior High School, are constructed to withstand extreme wind speeds, wind pressure and wind-borne debris impacts.

“For a safe room, the big difference is on a normal building you’re looking at wind loads that have pressures around 15-25 pounds per square foot acting on the building envelope,” Orr says. “On a safe room, you’re in the 180-200 pounds per square foot. So it’s about a factor of 10. So we have to beef up the structure to resist those wind loads.”

Orr continues, “Also another big factor is the missile impact criteria. For FEMA, the safe rooms you have to design all your doors, windows, your walls, your roof to resist a 15-pound two-by-four striking the building at 100 miles an hour. Now for the roof components, because it’s a horizontal plane, it’s at 67 miles per hour.”

High strength concrete is used in the construction of safe rooms, Orr says, but the cost difference is actually minimal since it’s often the same material used for additions to gyms. Orr says the time to complete a safe room is also minimally different than constructing a regular school building or addition.

Michael Sapp, president of Sapp Design Associates Architects, says his firm has helped construct two dozen FEMA safe rooms and currently six more in the works. He adds that a majority of his clients are spending beyond the necessary costs to construct the shelter in order to either make the building bigger or embellish it.

“It’s just been a really unique transformation, like I said in the last five maybe seven years, where you’re seeing more of these buildings and people going out and touring the facilities and saying, ‘I never would have dreamed this was a FEMA shelter. I didn’t know could do this,’” Sapp says. “So the perceptions that are out there in terms of what it looks like, how it can function, and along with the myth of cost to build something to federal government standards I think is going away because there’s been so many of these built in the last several years that are solid examples of the benefit and what they can actually be.”

Both Sapp and Orr’s companies will assist communities in providing information and writing the grants as a free service.

“We are just really appreciative of the federal government dedicating those funds to go to the state of Missouri and certainly other states,” Sapp says. “We just hate the fact that those funds only come in the event of a declared disaster so that’s why we appreciate those entities that are being proactive with or without grant federal funds that have seen the value and wanting to provide that level of safety to their communities.”

In March, Governor Nixon announced SEMA would move forward with proposals for 10 more projects constructing safe rooms and installing outdoor warning sirens.

The school safe room proposals were authorized for Christian, Greene, Webster, Laclede, Oregon and Ozark counties, according to a press release.

If Nixa can get more federal funding to add more safe rooms, Rantz says they will.

“Honestly, the amount of space we get—the usable space for the daily activities of the school—and for a growing district, it’s been a blessing,” Rantz says. “And on top of that, we’re really able to have space for our community to come in during tornadoes.”