Ozarks schools continue building tornado shelters despite fewer grants

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OZARK, Mo. (KY3) - Over the last several years, more and more schools have added tornado shelters to their facilities. Many were built with the help of FEMA grant funding, but although funding levels have dropped, shelter construction continues.

In the Ozark School District, each elementary school has a brand new tornado shelter, but you may not know it by just looking. "They're just delightful space. They're not only a great place to learn, but whenever we do our drills, the whole school can fit in here without any problem," says Craig Carson, Ozark School District assistant superintendent.

At Ozark West Elementary, the kindergarten classrooms still get sunshine through large windows, but they also have shutters they can close to protect them in the event of a storm.

"Since we have them and they're here, might as well use them [the shutters] for learning spaces. And you can see that she's using hers as a vocabulary wall," Carson said. The shutters are also magnetic and dry erase.

A fifth shelter is under construction at the junior high. The district needed more classroom space, but instead of building another elementary school, they listened to the desires of the community.

"The input was overwhelmingly that, after Joplin, they would prefer us to have safe places for the students," said Carson.

Paragon Architecture has designed many school storm shelters.

"After the Joplin tornado in 2011, there were over 100 tornado safe rooms designed and built in southwest Missouri and across the whole state. That's when the popularity of these really took off," said Paragon's principal architect, Brad Erwin.

FEMA grant funding after the Joplin tornado helped many districts build tornado shelters. But the building continues now, even with less grant funding available. Ozark paid for its shelters with a bond issue.

"Because of that grant funding early on in the state, it's really bolstered that interest in school districts and school boards. And communities realize these are essential facilities that should be just part of their overall campaign as they look to go to ballot issues and bond initiatives," said Erwin.

The Ozark district says the junior high shelter, which will double as choir and band space, should be completed by June or July.

"These facilities make a lot of sense to be placed within school districts because they know how to take care of them, maintain them, how to open them up to the public when needed, but they are also keeping an entire generation of that community safe," said Erwin.

Erwin says many school districts open up their shelters to the public in the event of a tornado warning. Ozark, however, uses theirs only for students and staff.