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Gimme storm shelter


Kurt Hochenauer May 20th, 2010

The recent tornadoes that killed two people, injured many more and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, and businesses should encourage Oklahoma leaders to come up with renewed comprehensive safety p...

The recent tornadoes that killed two people, injured many more and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, and businesses should encourage Oklahoma leaders to come up with renewed comprehensive safety plans to protect the state's residents and visitors.

This plan might include requiring mobile home parks and apartments to have at least evacuation plans if not storm shelters or safe rooms, granting more tax incentives and rebates for new shelters and requiring shelters in all new homes. This plan should also promote better information campaigns about the location of public shelters.

But the political trend over government's role in tornado safety seems to be going in the opposite direction, despite the state's turbulent weather history.

This session, state Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, offered House Bill 2835, which would have required mobile home and RV park owners to have safety and evacuation plans for their residents. The bill, which did not require storm shelters, died in the Senate.

Ownbey expressed disappointment the bill didn't get passed, but he doesn't think mandating storm shelters or providing state tax incentives would be a good idea for a variety of reasons, including access problems at mobile home parks, liability issues and underuse of shelter rebate programs.

Ownbey said he introduced the legislation after seven residents of a Lone Grove mobile home park were killed by a tornado last year.

The language of the bill could be applied to apartment complexes. Imagine people who have just moved to the Oklahoma City and live in a third-floor apartment. What do they do when a dangerous tornado is suddenly approaching their building? They should be handed an evacuation and shelter plan right after they sign their leases.

A recent Facebook discussion, started by local House District 84 candidate Brittany Novotny, was based on this question: "Do folks think it would be good for Oklahoma to require that apartment complexes that house a large number of people should be required to maintain some kind of storm shelter?" The discussion generated at least 57 responses, many favoring the idea.

Should the government offer more help to homeowners and mobile park owners with the financial cost of storm shelters? According to its website, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides financial assistance up to 75 percent for shelters following a major disaster declaration. After the May 3, 1999, tornado, FEMA and the state helped build 6,016 shelters, according to the site. A 2003 federal law allows community block grants to be used for installing storm shelters in mobile home parks.

Any new and existing incentives need to be publicized widely and pack enough financial punch to make mobile home park owners and homeowners want to install shelters for safety and increased property values.

Would requiring all new homes to have a shelter or a reinforced internal room help reduce tornado fatalities in the long run? Could the government grant incentives to builders or homebuyers?

Critics of these ideas will argue they're too costly and represent too much government intrusion, but the longer view is this: Protecting residents and visitors from Oklahoma's violent weather will save lives, improve the quality of life here and enhance the state's image, leading to economic development.

Hochenauer, an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, is the recent recipient of a Marshall Gregory Award for Excellence in Education Reporting given by the Oklahoma Education Association for three editorials published in the Gazette last year.
 
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