Community Storm Shelters Save Lives For Those Close By
TUSHKA, Oklahoma - Some folks were driving home from a high school graduation when they were swept up in that epic tornado in Joplin Monday afternoon. Being caught without a shelter can have deadly consequences.
"Seek shelter in a sturdy location."
It's the first thing we urge viewers to do when a tornado threatens. Heeding those warnings means the difference between life and death.
For residents of Tushka, Oklahoma that couldn't have been more true than on April 15, 2011.
"And all the firemen came in and said 'Shut the doors, no one else comes in here. It's here,'" said Brenda Howell. "And we began to hear it. And we began to hear the destruction."
Howell, along with hundreds of other residents, survived the deadly, EF-3 tornado in one of two community storm shelters. The FEMA-funded storm shelter, built in 2002, kept Howell safe, as 150 mile per hour winds thrashed their town. In the wake of the tornado, it's been converted into a temporary classroom, but it stands ready for the next storm and provides peace of mind.
"I felt like we were very, very fortunate," Howell said.
In those terrifying moments, Howell took solace in seeing her family and friends in the same secure place, but couldn't say the same about others who weren't there.
"We think that anyone that would have been outside wouldn't have made it, but we also had a family with two young children that didn't make it into the building, who hung onto the rail fence, and rode that out," she said.
It was a miraculous survival for that family, but it was their late decision to seek shelter that almost cost them their lives.
Shelters like the one at Johanna Woods Mobile Home Park, in Broken Arrow, are built to FEMA guidelines, made with steel and reinforced concrete, so it can withstand an EF-5 tornado. Their three shelters are designed to hold up to 170 community residents in each, and people count on them.
"I'm going to say probably 75 to 80 percent of our residents. We are very busy when there is an imminent storm," said Charlotte Brady, of Johanna Woods.
The average lead warning time in eastern Oklahoma is 19 minutes, but some tornadoes give you far less time to reach shelter.
While FEMA funds and encourages the use of community storm shelters, they recommend they only be used if you can get to one within five minutes of the warning being issued.
So, we put that to the test at a community safe room in Broken Arrow. We wanted to see how far we could go in five minutes.
After five minutes, we'd gone 2.1 miles, which means if you were any further away than 2.1 miles from that shelter, you would have been without shelter, and you would have been in your vehicle with an oncoming tornado. We don't want that to happen.
According to FEMA, during the tornado outbreak in Alabama in 2011, some people traveled between five and 10 miles to reach a safe shelter, putting some of them in the crosshairs of a deadly twister.
Schools can be one of the safest places to be during a tornado. Tulsa Public Schools, like other local school districts, have designated storm shelters in each of their schools to keep students and their staff safe. They identify the safest places to go and places to avoid.
"We really try to avoid hallways that have doors at both ends, because those turn into wind tunnels easily, if the doors get damaged or breached. They discovered that in Joplin," said Bob Roberts, of TPS.
While schools like Eliot Elementary aren't open to the public after-hours as a shelter, parents can rest assured that their students are protected when a tornado or severe wind storm threatens.
"We have to remember what our primary concern is - to keep the kids safe - and allowing large numbers of people from the community that we don't know, that we have no control over in the schools, that really isn't what we need to do to keep the kids safe," Roberts said.
Even at public and work locations without a formal shelter, a safe location should be identified and communicated to all employees. A community center in an apartment complex can also serve as a storm shelter for residents. If one is not available at your location, know ahead of time where to go when a Tornado Watch is issued.
"If we are in a watch situation, they're open, and so they're open well before it goes to a warning," Brady said, of the shelter at Johanna Woods. "We pay close attention to the weather, and we have them on in our shelters when the shelters are in use."
Think of a Watch as the heads-up that you need to prepare to head somewhere safe so you're ready if the Watch becomes a Warning and a tornado is imminent. Most importantly, don't put your life at risk to get to a shelter after it's too late. You're better off just about anywhere other than your car in a tornado.
It's places like Tushka, where a community shelter serves the best purpose. With everyone only traveling a mile or two ahead of a warning, losses of life can be avoided.
"It really came through for us. We were so fortunate not to lose any more people than we did, with the destruction that was here," Howell said.
Mobile Home Community Storm Shelters are reserved for residents only, but some communities like Tushka have designated shelters for the public.