Alabama Tornado Shelter Red Tape – Disaster Preparedness

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Disaster Preparedness


Alabama red tape holding up storm shelters as tornado season approaches

SUMMARY:  State lawmakers are trying to streamline the Alabama Tornado Shelter process, introducing legislation that would take the MHC out of the process and turn it over to Alabama EMA.  That only applies to smaller, private shelters holding 12 or fewer people. Larger, community shelters will still need to go through a cumbersome approval and inspection process.

Analysis by Ken O’Dell, Firestorm Partner, S.E., & Marisol K. Shankar, ABCP, AMBCI – MHP, Inc. Structural Engineers, Firestorm® MHP

In last week’s edition of the Disaster Due Diligence newsletter, we discussed how lawmakers and Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency (“EMA”) are trying to remove barriers to installation of smaller, private shelters holding 12 or fewer people. The direction from FEMA and public agencies is clear – if you are vulnerable to natural or man-made disasters, you should prepare adequate supplies and create a plan to sustain yourself, your family, pets, etc. for several days or more.

Upon consideration, we recognize that perceived barriers may be preventing individuals, businesses, or cities in Alabama from taking the initiative toward preparedness prior to tornado season. The knee-jerk reaction we see after high-impact disasters is often an avalanche of discussions with potential solutions to mitigate future risk. However, in some cases, quickly passing legislation doesn’t allow a reasonable amount of time to adequately assess the contributing factors to structural and other systems failures, nor does it allow time for the development of definitive approaches toward preaction.
One barrier to preparedness identified in the original article is “red tape,” or “excessive regulation or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders or prevents action or decision-making.” But the responsibility for the burden of preparedness is not so easily shunted. Rather than focusing on the limitations of working through the red tape, it is perhaps better to expend energy on implementing actionable solutions by discussing the possibilities and implications of designing and building “brick and mortar” or traditionally constructed shelters under current building code and agency requirements.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) and other agencies have numerous current publications readily available to the general public. General building guidelines for storm shelters can be found in a pamphlet titled Storm Shelters, produced by the National Weather Service in Huntsville, Alabama, which presents three main types of storm shelters, as well as references to additional resources.

In August 2008, FEMA released the Third Edition of FEMA 320, titled Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business.” This comprehensive guide takes a home or small business building owner through the process of understanding hazards in the area and planning a safe room, with additional resources detailing approximate construction costs and sample floor plans. The intention of the publication is geared toward individuals and their builder/contractors to create safe room designs that provide protection from extreme winds and flying debris.

A related guide, FEMA 361, titled Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms, includes detailed guidance for construction of these structures. Additionally, FEMA’s Safe Room webpage coalesces some of the broader details of FEMA 320 into a more accessible format. These resources can be used and plans implemented TODAY while state regulatory agencies cut through the bureaucratic process of ensuring reasonable standards for pre-manufactured shelters are in place.
Considering the resources available, why are there still barriers to individual preparedness? The results of a recent survey performed by the Persuadable Research Corporation indicate that more than half of respondents believe they are unprepared for a disaster. According to the survey, personal experience appears to be the driving factor behind preparedness, and inaction seems to stem from the perceived financial impacts of preparedness.

While it’s difficult to put a price tag on the intangibles (health, safety, ability to return to work, etc.), is it really prudent to wait to be affected before taking action? More than just a literal blueprint for action, FEMA 320 has several answers to the perceived financial problem; on pages 41-42 there is an anecdote describing the experience of an Autauga County, Alabama resident with the process of constructing a safe room. The first step taken in the process was to contact the local emergency manager and enroll in the Alabama Safe Room program. By completing the application for Individuals through Alabama Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, the individual received 75% of the cost to construct the safe room.

An important reminder regarding high-wind events such as hurricanes and tornadoes – even though a shelter or safe room may be designed in conformance with all applicable FEMA criteria, the use of these structures may not be in compliance with mandatory evacuation orders of the local jurisdiction. Local jurisdictional directions and orders should always take precedence.

A strong strategy for recovery involves personal preparedness. This preparedness requires an informed, rather than perceived, understanding of the hazards and impacts. Luck is not a strategic plan! Individuals and businesses should not rely on immediate assistance and response from local, state, or the federal government in a major regional disaster. Firestorm’s Disaster Ready People for a Disaster Ready America takes individuals and employees through a process that helps them create their plan at home, ensuring a more rapid return to work and the ability to restore a sense of “normalcy”.
Can we motivate you to put on your own helmet? What do helmets and tornadoes have in common? Join our webinar in March to find out more.

–Kenneth O’Dell, S.E. M.ASCE, Principal, Firestorm MHP

Marisol K. Shankar, ABCP, Firestorm MHP


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