School districts seeking FEMA funds

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Berryville, Eureka Springs and Green Forest school districts are partnering to seek federal funds for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) storm shelter and safe rooms.

The districts held a kickoff meeting Tuesday, Jan. 29, at Berryville High School to develop a FEMA hazard mitigation plan.

Accredited learning environment planner Aliza Jones said the plan, known as the Carroll County Educational Cooperative Hazard Mitigation Plan, will assess each of the school districts’ risk and vulnerabilities to natural hazards and provide recommendations to increase their resiliency. In doing so, she said these actions aim to protect school district facilities and those who attend classes and work in these school districts.

To qualify for FEMA funds to build safe rooms and storm shelters, Jones said the districts must have a hazard mitigation plan. Once the plan is completed, she said it allows the districts to then apply for FEMA safe room funding.

“So far, I’ve completed two of these plans: one for Boone County and one for Searcy County,” she said. “All have either been approved for a safe room or have had districts approved to apply. It’s a multiphase process.”

Jones said the hazard mitigation plan will look at everything from natural to man-made disasters in Carroll County.

“They go back 100 years looking for a lot of natural disasters people might not be aware of, like underground mines and things like that,” she said. “We assess property, and we assess people. We try to bring in those factors of ‘What has happened in this county in the past 100 years?’ and ‘What can we do to try to mitigate any kind of disaster going forward?’ ”

She continued, “We try to say ‘Hey, you guys are in a 100-year floodplain. You’re coming up on 100 years, so you need to start thinking about it.’ ”

Jones said the Carroll County Educational Cooperative will work with Two Rivers Emergency Management to develop the plan, which will include geo-mapping the campuses and aligning them with topography maps and historical data maps.

“We chose those guys because the gentleman who works with them is Tony Gertz,” she said, “and he and I have worked together on all of these local county plans. He’s very effective. He knows what FEMA wants and what they don’t want. He’s usually able to get his plans approved in the first run.”

Jones said it takes about eight months to a year to complete a hazard mitigation plan.

“Once it gets completed, we have another one of these meetings at each of the districts,” she said. “We send it to FEMA. FEMA approves it, and then we start throwing in our notice of intent.”

After submitting a notice of intent, Jones said FEMA will select candidates from a pool of applicants and invite them to apply for safe room funding.

“When you get to the stage where you’re invited to apply, you’re pretty much going to get the funding,” she said, “unless you really screw up the application or there’s something on a national level, like Hurricane Katrina, where they have to redirect funding.”

Jones said the districts received funding to write the hazard mitigation plan.

“The writing of this plan costs just over $25,000,” she said. “We’re getting 75 percent funding for that, and we pay the remaining 25 percent.”

The plans are good for five years once completed, she said, and will allow the districts to apply for safe room funding.

Jones said most safe rooms are running about $290 to $320 per square foot, totaling upward of about $2.1 million. The rooms are designed to provide up to two hours of protection from storms. They can withstand F5 tornados and 250 mph winds, she said.

“That would hold about 1,000 people. They are very expensive structures,” she said, “but FEMA will pay up to 75 percent.”

Green Forest Superintendent Matt Summers said he had spoken with city officials about partnering in the endeavor as well.

“So FEMA would have to come through the school side,” he said, “but we’d have to look at some type of joint use grant to incorporate municipalities. Is that correct?”

“By law, schools have first priority during the day for safe rooms located at their schools,” Jones said, “but you do have to open them up at night for community usage. You don’t have to have a usage agreement.”

Allen “Bubba” Usrey, operations manager for Southern Paramedic Service, asked about using the safe rooms as central locations during community-wide emergencies.

“Being with the ambulance service, one thing we run into is when the interstate is shut down because of ice, all these people who were traveling suddenly can’t travel anymore,” he said. “We’ve used National Guard centers to put people up, but we really need a central location for them to go to other than a hospital because not all of them are injured in these situations.”

“Having the ability to have a safe room at each of our school districts will hopefully help with that,” Jones said, “but again they’re not going to hold everybody. We look for a half-mile radius to adapt for people who can get there within five minutes.”

She said that’s the reason one safe room will not be enough for each school district.

“We will have to have multiple safe rooms on the different campuses,” she said.

Berryville Superintendent Owen Powell said he believed having two, one on the east campus and one on the west campus, would be ideal for Berryville.

Jones said they could also look into using the safe rooms for other purposes, such as warming centers or Red Cross centers, by seeking out further cooperative partnerships.

“The Red Cross is on board. They just don’t know if there is any money on their side,” she said. “Something we can look at adding on easily would be adjacent Red Cross kitchens. They won’t be part of the safe room, but they can be added on.”

Summers said the safe rooms could also be used as vaccination locations in emergency outbreak situations. He said now is the time to explore additional partnerships.

“You’re not going to get a second chance at this, at a building of that size and that nature,” he said. “Speaking for Green Forest, we play well with the city, county and EMS. We’re all about partnerships. The schools have partnerships now that have never existed before with C4 and this program.”

Summers concluded, “Our thought right now is to bring everybody to the table and see what’s needed.”

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