Windfall: Tornado shelters may be on Anniston's COVID aid shopping list

·4 min read

Jul. 2—Three times in this century alone, tornadoes have plowed across the rural heart of Calhoun County, damaging homes by the hundreds. But local officials have gamed out a far worse scenario.

If a large twister followed a path roughly equivalent to that of Alabama 202, hitting the urban core of Anniston instead of less-populated communities just a few miles north, the damage could be shocking even to storm-jaded Calhoun Countians.

"It could get the police station, the Sheriff's office and the hospital, and that's not even counting the effect on the population in the city," said Myles Chamblee, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.

The Anniston City Council may soon make a decision on one proposed safeguard against the possibility of a deadly storm. While public storm shelters have sprung up around rural Calhoun County in recent years, there are none within Anniston city limits, local officials say.

The council is now weighing a proposal to spend a small portion of the city's $13 million in federal post-pandemic aid — money set aside by the American Rescue Plan Act — to build storm shelters in the city.

"We need to do something so citizens can be protected in a time of need," said Anniston fire Chief Jeff Waldrep.

In a work session last month, the council discussed a Rescue Plan Act spending proposal that would have dedicated $174,000 to two shelters that could house 95 people during a storm. Since then, city officials have been reluctant to discuss details of the shelter proposal.

That may be due to the unknowns that keep emerging with the Rescue Plan. It's possible that still more money could be on the way for cities — assuming Congress agrees on an infrastructure spending bill — and the Alabama League of Municipalities has been encouraging cities to take their time and make sure they're not spending on projects that could get funding from elsewhere.

Local leaders do seem to agree on a need for shelters, though. Calhoun County lost nine people in the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak and six people in a tornado this March. Both storms crossed roughly the same stretch of rural land. No one died in the tornado that landed a direct hit on Jacksonville in March 2018 — but the storm hit on the Monday of spring break week, when many of the city's residents had left town.

Anniston, with about 21,000 residents, is the county's largest city. It hasn't seen a direct tornado hit in years, but there's no evidence the city has been protected by anything but luck.

"A tornado can happen anywhere in the state, anywhere in the county," Chamblee said. He said an Anniston tornado is a scenario the EMA has used in tabletop exercises.

New shelters have popped up across the county over the past decade: in storm-demolished Webster's Chapel; next to the defunct elementary school in rural Cedar Springs; at some schools and churches; and in Thankful, a neighborhood just outside city limits that many people think of as part of Anniston.

There's a sad irony to some of those projects. Chamblee said federal "mitigation" aid often comes after a big storm has already hit. The county got that aid in the November after the March 2018 Jacksonville storm, and Chamblee said another round is likely to come this November, a follow-up to the March 25 storm.

Deciding how to spend that money is tricky. There's no way to build enough shelters to hold all the county's 100,000-plus residents, Chamblee said. In rural areas, shelters are often a haven for people who live in mobile homes — though that's generally not a factor in Anniston, where mobile homes are rare.

"With shelters, you never really feel like you have enough," Chamblee said.

He said lawmakers recently passed a bill to make it easier to set up "safer spaces," that offer some protection, even if they aren't as strong as dedicated shelters. Storm shelters are generally built to withstand an F5 storm, Chamblee said, though the basement of a church or civic center can provide as least some protection from a weaker storm.

Oxford has one of those "safer places" at the Oxford Performing Arts Center. Fire Chief Gary Sparks said the center could hold more than 100 people — adding to the capacity the city has with shelters in Bynum and DeArmanville.

"It's not a certified shelter," he said. "But it's safer than anything else we've got besides our shelters."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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