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Three Years After Storm, Joplin Schools Halfway Toward Goal of 14 Safe Rooms

The Soaring Heights Elementary gymnasium also serves as a safe room. It's one of seven functional safe rooms within Joplin Schools.
Scott Harvey

Jeannie Paul was out of town at the time of the May 2011 Joplin tornado that destroyed her home in the east part of the city. Her residence along Dingle Drive has since been rebuilt. Paul, however, prefers the community safe room down the street in times of severe weather, which she experienced for the first time earlier this spring.

“A lot of kids, a lot of the neighborhood people were there. The children were able to play, they were playing basketball and just kind of running around the gym, and they weren’t scared. A lot of us that have been through it were scared, but we felt safe in the safe room. So it’s really been a blessing to have in the neighborhood,” Paul said.

That safe room is part of Soaring Heights Elementary, which alongside East Middle School, opened new facilities in January after both were destroyed three years ago.  A total of 10 district buildings were damaged or destroyed in the storm. But with every structure replaced by Joplin school officials, comes a new emphasis on safety for students and the community.

“So this is a community safe room,” says Kelli Price, communications specialist with Joplin Schools. “You will notice that it does not look like a safe room, it is a gymnasium. And that is purposeful.”

That’s because as a gymnasium, the safe room provides usable space year-round. The basketball goals can provide entertainment to people as they wait, says Price. It’s well lit, provides access to restrooms, and, she says, the safe room is not a frightening place to be during a storm.

“During a school day we have as safe room manager which is typically our principal. After school hours the safe room would be staffed by volunteers should we have extreme weather.”

Tornado safe room sign
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
The sign outside the entrance to the Soaring Heights Elementary gymnasium.

Volunteers that live in close proximity to the school are alerted of storms through a NOAA radio. They then open the safe room and stay through the duration of either a watch or a warning.  The safe room can also be opened in weather events where winds exceed 75 miles per hour.

The gymnasium at Soaring Heights Elementary can house roughly 750 people. Additionally, there’s a separate safe room where school officials can house just students. Each new safe room receives 75 percent of its funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Joplin’s case, the state picks up an additional percentage of the cost for safe rooms constructed at schools affected by the tornado.   

The idea of safe rooms has become commonplace when considering how to protect oneself during severe weather. Those that can afford one may choose to purchase for their own home.

Jim and Sandy Snodgrass also live along Dingle Drive, within walking distance to Soaring Heights Elementary. But it takes just a few steps to reach their safe room.

“When we rebuilt we added another garage on, and we built it out here. Before we just had this garage right here,” explains Sandy Snodgrass, as she opens the door to her safe room.

Previously, the Snodgrasses were limited to the basement of their next door neighbor to seek shelter. But that wasn’t even an option three years ago.

“It just happened so fast that we didn’t have time to go next door or anything, so we just had to go in the inside bathroom,” Sandy says.

So while the community safe room less than a block away isn’t necessary for Snodgrass and her husband, she’s glad it’s available to others nearby. The same feeling is true for Martin and Carol Micke, who also own a safe room.

“The next door neighbors, that’s where they’ll go, and so I think they have more peace of mind that way knowing that they do have,” Martin Micke says.

Carol Micke added, “It’s wonderful that people have thought of that and Joplin has been really good at doing that, have a lot of different innovations that other people in the area and outside the area have looked at.”

Citizens along Dingle Drive in east Joplin have received a packet explaining how the safe rooms work, what the procedures and rules are, a map showing the entrance and a map showing the area the safe room serves. The same information has been distributed to those living within .25 to 5 miles of any other district building with a safe room. Officials add that they will not turn anyone away who may be passing through the area during a storm.

Jeannie Paul’s residence is well within that required distance. While she hopes her visits to the Soaring Heights Elementary School gym are kept to a minimum, she’s grateful to that the option is at her disposal, and is readily available to students.

“Nobody wants their children going through a tornado. No one. Or their neighbor’s children. So after what we went through, I think everybody is pro-safe rooms in the schools,” Paul said.

There are currently seven functional safe rooms within the Joplin School District. Another seven are planned for completion this fall.

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