POSTED ON JUNE 12, 2013:
Seeking cover during a tornado? You're on your own.
Since I've been with the emergency management office now almost 15 years, we've never had public tornado shelters," Roger Jolliff told the Tulsa City Council.
In the aftermath of the destruction in Moore and elsewhere in the state, Jolliff, director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, had been summoned to talk about public safety.
"The best thing you can do is shelter inside your home," Jolliff said at a June 6 council committee meeting.
While safe rooms and other storm shelters emerged intact following the recent Moore tornado, only a small fraction of homes have such safeguards.
For those without such shelters, Jolliff recommended "a bathroom or closet or small interior hallway."
In urging people not to travel to escape tornadoes, Jolliff was describing the philosophy embraced by emergency authorities locally. Tornadoes can toss around vehicles, so getting in a car and driving about during a tornado can be the worst scenario, Jolliff explained.
He noted the deaths a storm chaser crew caused by the May 31 tornado that touched down near El Reno, west of Oklahoma City. Though reports have indicated the crew may have been the first such storm chasers to die in the field, Jolliff described their deaths to illustrate a point.
"If anybody could have predicted movement of a tornado, they could have," Jolliff said.
So Tulsa goes without officially-designated public shelters. But that doesn't mean that government has completely ignored the reality that some may find themselves far from home or simply judge their own homes to not be sturdy enough to withstand a storm.
Just last year, Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law a measure that assured anyone choosing to offer shelter during a storm that they couldn't be sued for their act of goodwill.
MAY 20TH 2013 TORNADO DAMAGE IN MOORE
"Any entity or individual that provides access to a safe place in times of severe weather shall not be liable for any civil damages to any person using the safe place during severe weather if the entity or individual was acting in good faith and the damage or injury was not caused by the willful or wanton negligence or misconduct of the entity or individual," the law states.
The state's Republican Party thought enough of the new law that they included it in their rundown of legislative highlights, touting it as a "Good Samaritan" measure.
Gary Shaffer, chief executive officer for the Tulsa City-County Library system, said that the library may add a safe room to its future downtown location, with talks underway with emergency management officials.
"We're kind of at a critical point in the design of the building, so we're actually in talks with them right now," Shaffer said. "So it's not a definite thing, and we are hopeful there might be some FEMA money to help us do it, but it is something we are investigating and looking into."
Shaffer said the library and others in the system won't open up at odd hours. During normal operating hours, however, libraries will keep their doors open.
"There's a designed safe place in each of the buildings, but it's not an official storm shelter," Shaffer said.
Eric Neel, a district manager with Reasor's grocery chain, said the store thinks about protecting customers and workers during severe weather.
"We strongly discourage them from leaving if there are sirens," Neel said. Stores don't have storm shelters, but each has a different area designated as a place to go, be it a meat cooler or dairy case, he said.
And if people pull up in the parking lot during bad weather, Neel said they would be welcomed inside.
"We want people to be able to use us for a safe place. They'd be much safer in a facility than in a car," Neel said.
No one on the Tulsa City Council brought up the use of businesses as public shelters, but Councilor David Patrick did note the vulnerability of mobile home parks should a tornado strike. Tulsa has a few RV parks and mobile home clusters scattered across the city. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge people to flee mobile homes for the safety of a structure or, if that's not available, a ravine or ditch.
"If you live in a tornado-prone area, encourage your mobile home community to build a tornado shelter," the agency's website advises.
Patrick asked Jolliff if mobile home parks "should be required to have some sort of shelter by an ordinance."
Jolliff responded: "That is one ordinance I would welcome, and I think it would make the community safer."
Storm shelter mandates of any kind are rare, though Kansas does have some ordinances in place relating to larger mobile home parks, according to published reports.
The Associated Press described Fallin as saying, "We aren't going to require people to do anything, but if someone chooses to do that, we certainly encourage it." Even in Joplin, Mo., the site of a tornado that killed more than 150 people, the city council has not put forth a requirement for homes to have storm shelters, the Associated Press reported.
In Moore, the tornado hit Plaza Towers Elementary School, killing seven children and destroying the building.
State Rep. Joe Dorman (D-Rush Springs) is pursuing a statewide petition on the topic, hoping to secure funding by appealing to voters.
For homeowners, the state in recent years -- with federal funding -- has operated the SoonerSafe lottery program offering rebates of up to $2,000 for safe rooms.
Jolliff said there was a chance the city could also receive funding for a similar rebate program for safe rooms, while councilors questioned why safe room permit fees collected by the city are higher than elsewhere in the state.
Jolliff also spoke about the importance of registering safe rooms in case of a disaster. An effort is ongoing to allow for Tulsa-area homeowners to go online and register their safe rooms and shelters, but they may do so now by phone at 918-596-9899.
"Don't plan for first responders to come get you out of the safe room," Jolliff said. Instead, residents should prepare for the worst and "contact a friend, someone that doesn't live in your neighborhood" to check up on them in case of a disaster.
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