Keeping the city safe

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Keeping the city safe in the middle of a tornado-prone territory is a mighty big job. The city's plan to put a FEMA-rated safe room on Marshall Hill, next to the old Community Center, is a great addition for a long-neglected neighborhood.

The storm shelter plan underlines the enormity of the task.

According to Bonnie Witt-Schulte, Monett's emergency management director, Monett is now served by 11 narrowband storm sirens. The number is down slightly following the conversion from broadband radio frequencies.

To help everyone in the city receive a storm alert, a new siren is scheduled to be mounted on the northeast corner of the city, on Farm Roads 2230 and 1090. The Woodland Hills subdivision is on the edge of the current siren range. Residents will be able to hear the new siren west on 13th Street, east as far as Farm Road 1100 and north as far as Farm Road 2220.

Back when Gene Mulvaney, Witt-Schulte's predecessor, got Monett's storm shelters put in place, sirens cost about $13,000. The city budgeted buying a siren every year or two. These days sirens cost $18,000 to $21,000 each. It's little wonder that towns unable to afford sirens a decade ago aren't rushing out to buy more these days.

Storm shelters, or safe rooms as the smaller ones are generally labeled, aren't cheap either. Even with a FEMA grant, the city will spend $200,000 building a shelter for the Marshall Hill neighborhood. It will nonetheless be the first time the neighborhood has had any significant structure that would pass for a storm shelter. Most of the center city has historically relied on public buildings with basements as points of refuge.

The Marshall Hill safe room is expected to serve 550 people, covering people living within a half mile. Monett's only other FEMA-approved safe room at Monett Elementary School is large enough to handle 1,200 people.

The Justice Center on East Cleveland, not a FEMA-approved refuge, has a large enough basement to hold 250 people. The safe room planned at Monett High School, to accommodate MHS and Scott Tech students, is projected to hold about 800 students. The planned safe room at Monett Middle School will likely hold at least 500.

Looking at Monett's geography, it's easy to see there are major holes in Monett's protection options. Everything south of Highway 60, which divides into east and west of South Park, plus houses north of Cleveland have few options.

The price tag for any storm shelter or safe room for these neighborhoods is huge -- enough to scare off any timid city government.

We recently passed the 70th anniversary of the Oct. 28, 1942 tornado in Berryville, Ark. With eerie similarlities to the 2011 tornado in Joplin, in a period when there were no storm sirens, the storm killed 28 people. If Joplin had lost a similar percentage of its population, the death toll would have hit 800.

There's an old native American story that the Monett valley will escape from tornados. Recent years have put that legend to the test. Regardless of Monett's track record, it's reassuring that Monett's city and school leaders have taken the threat seriously. Even though it's expensive, we hope the commitment will continue.