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Indiana lawmakers look for ways to pay for school tornado shelters as interest grows

IDHS says schools are calling about shelters
Tornado.JPG
Posted at 9:24 AM, Aug 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-16 20:20:19-04

INDIANAPOLIS — As interest grows among Indiana schools in building tornado shelters, state lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are looking for ways to help schools pay for the structures.

Call 6 Investigates found Indiana has no laws in place requiring schools to have tornado shelters, nor does it have any requirements for newly constructed schools to include a storm shelter.

Since our story aired last month about the lack of tornado shelters in Indiana schools, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security has received several phone calls from schools interested in building a tornado shelter.

FEMA grants are available, and the application process opens on October 1, according to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

“We have received several calls from schools expressing interest, and IDHS Mitigation is working with them to educate them on the program and the application process,” said Ashley Steeb, public information specialist with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. “We will also be providing them with technical assistance in forming their projects and completing their applications for submittal.”

Schools have to come up with a 25% match, which can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than a million dollars.

Even though this federal funding is available to build tornado protection for students, most Indiana schools have not applied for the money.

Senator Eddie Melton, D-Gary, is looking for ways to help schools make that 25% match.

"I'm sure that if we were able to invest in making sure programs are in place to help local school corporations with local dollars to go along with these federal dollars, that would be of extreme help” said Melton. “I’m sure many schools don’t have the resources, the dollars to match the federal dollars.”
Most Indiana schools do not have basements, nor do they have tornado shelters or safe rooms in place, leaving children to hunker down in interior hallways and rooms.

Indiana is at high risk for tornadoes, according to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, which means our schools and children are vulnerable throughout the school year.

This map shows Indiana is at risk for high wind and tornado events with wind gusts of over 250 mph.

Call 6 Investigates found other states with laws or building codes in place requiring storm shelters on newly constructed schools including Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan.

Melton said he’s considering legislation for Indiana that would require school corporations to include storm shelters in their plans for newly constructed school buildings.

“We don’t have that policy intact, and we should be able to implement that in the next session,” said Melton. “Indiana has a history of severe weather in terms of tornadoes. Ensure we have facilities that are built moving forward that are safe, sound and a good structure is going to be extremely important.”

Adding a tornado shelter to a new building adds about 5 percent to the cost of the school.

For example, if a new school costs $35 million, adding a tornado shelter to the plans would cost about $1.8 million.

Erin Houchin, R-Salem, lives in Salem, which is home to a tornado safe room that was featured in our July 30 investigation.

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PREVIOUS | Indiana doesn’t require schools to have tornado shelters

Houchin hopes other schools will build tornado shelters.

“I can see that we might want to consider on new construction whether to add that as a requirement, particularly with the federal funding we know is available,” said Houchin. “I'm a little hesitant on creating a mandate that schools can't afford and really want those decisions to be guided by local communities."

Houchin said Salem schools’ safe room provides peace of mind to the entire community.

“It’s really an incredible thing to see,” said Houchin. “It’s a comfort for all of our school students. I highly encourage all schools to take a look at taking advantage of that to have that added safety feature for students and families.”

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Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, has also expressed interested in helping schools build storm shelters.
Frye is the chairman of the Indiana House Veterans Affairs and Public Safety Committee, and a deadly tornado touched down in his district in 2012 in Holton, Indiana.

Do you want to bring a tornado shelter or safe room to your child’s school? Talk to your principal, superintendent or school board and visit the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s mitigation website for more information about tornado safe room funding.