OUR VIEW: Grant rules for shelters are a disaster


April has been a time of reflection on major tornadoes of the past, including the April 3, 1974, tornadoes that, in part, hit downtown Jasper. April 27 will also mark the 10th anniversary of the Cordova tornadoes that devastated that city. Some are still cleaning up from the Easter tornado in Carbon Hill last year. And, of course, we have had our recent tornado warnings in the area.

As the Daily Mountain Eagle has been working on an anniversary video on the Cordova event, we have heard the wind and screams of people repeatedly, bringing the sadness and fear back to us again.  It breaks your heart.

One of the lessons we've learned is the need for proper shelter. Fortunately, Carbon Hill, Parrish, Oakman and Carbon Hill have tornado shelters, and Sumiton (which lacked a location for a shelter) will open its senior center. The Walker County Commission and the Walker County Emergency Management Agency have been able in recent years to erect more tornado shelters around the county in smaller communities - although they used grant funding, and have little funding at the moment to pay for a new shelter. 

Dora and Jasper (and even the Curry community) have been left out of the money in getting a shelter, unfortunately. "We've been trying for 10 years to get one," Dora Mayor Randy Stephens said.

If a one is in the heart of Jasper in a manufactured home or a second-floor apartment during a warning, they would have to go to Union Grove or Saragossa to get to a shelter. "Jasper is one of our areas where we don't really have anything there," Walker County EMA Coordinator Regina Myers said. 

The problem is funding. First off, federal rules are not designed to be preventative but reactive. Myers explains one has to have an emergency disaster declaration for a major tornado in the area - one that has already hit! - before you can get grant money to put up a shelter, which can cost $100,000.

That is still one of the most backward rules of American government we have heard constantly over the decades, no matter which party was in charge. Some of us just got $1,400 checks from the feds we didn't ask for and some of us didn't need them - but we can't get enough funding to put up a shelter to literally save lives? Politico says the $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan has $1 trillion that isn't really even infrastructure, and we still can't get funding. Congress really should get this rule changed.  Period.

We do have to give credit to Jasper Mayor David O'Mary, who, when we approached him about Jasper's problem, said, "I think it is without debate there is a need.” He said he would look into it, and he did. Officials researched how Haleyville got its shelter. 

O'Mary forwarded us an email to the city from the very able and popular grant writer Terry Acuff, who we trust as well. Acuff stated, "The shelters in Haleyville were built with Hazard Mitigation funds from the Katrina Hurricane and April 2011 disaster declaration.  After each Disaster Declaration 3% of the disaster assistance funds spent in the State/County goes to Hazardous Mitigation.  

"The problem is right now, which is a good thing, but not for funding for shelters is there have not been any large declared disaster in the State or Walker County in several years.  So if there is any Hazardous Mitigation funds available the city would have to apply to Walker County EMA. My understanding currently Walker County EMA does not have funds available. When Haleyville constructed their shelters  there were large sums of Hazardous Mitigation funds available."

So we are back to square one. 

Still, for a city of 13,649 people, Jasper should be able to raise funds from individual and industrial donors, and combine with some of the surplus funds that have been obtained. We wonder if legislators and members of Congress could come up with some appropriations or discretionary funds. 

Our own online poll asked, "Do you think the City of Jasper has enough storm shelters available for its population/size?" The vote by Thursday afternoon was 410 for "no" and six for "yes." While the poll is unscientific, it is thought to be one of the most lopsided results since the poll started. Comments on Facebook seem to confirm people would support this effort. And, again, Congress should unravel rules so places like Dora and Curry are not left behind, either. 

Let's hope we don't have to have to have another F-5 tornado to be able to take adequate protection to protect the most vulnerable among us.

--Daily Mountain Eagle