Baldwin City mayor says FEMA grant details make city role in community shelter at PAC difficult
When warning sirens sounded the night of Feb. 28, with a tornado on the ground west of the city, Donna Sumner of 225 Baker Street was one of about 60 people who sought shelter at Baldwin school district’s new Performing Arts Center.
But it was locked.
“I have nowhere else to go,” she told the Baldwin City Council on Monday night. “I live in a mobile home. They say that’s the most dangerous place to be in a tornado. Where are people like us supposed to go?”
In interviews before Monday’s council meeting, Mayor Ken Wagner and Ande Parks, school board president, agreed a repeat of the Feb. 28 experience was unacceptable.
Wagner, however, said problems of enforcement, liability and logistics forced the city to withdraw from any role in the operation of a shelter at the Performing Arts Center. A complicating factor was the school district’s grant agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that mandated how that building must be managed during a storm.
As explained to city officials by Douglas County Emergency Management Director Teri Smith, the FEMA agreement was to provide a safe room for the students and staff of the junior high and high schools while school was in session — but not a community shelter, Wagner said.
The FEMA agreement mandates the shelter’s doors be locked 10 minutes after a tornado warning is issued for Baldwin City. It also requires the shelter remain locked and no one leave, until a warning was lifted.
It’s unrealistic to think city police or the fire chief could handle that in an emergency, Wagner said. And volunteer firefighters might not be available.
“We’re acting on the advice of an emergency management professional,” Wagner said. “We could be putting people at greater risk by encouraging them to leave the relative safety of their homes.”
That volunteer also would be required to lock the doors as FEMA dictates, perhaps with people still showing up to seek shelter or with those inside demanding to leave before an all-clear was issued, Wagner said.
Baldwin City Administrator Chris Lowe explained Monday that if the city opens the shelter during non-school hours, it would assume liability for the safety of people inside.
The liability issue was the reason the school district could not offer a community shelter, Parks said. The district’s lawyer and the Kansas Association of School Board’s said the district’s insurance would not cover any liability for running a community shelter because it’s outside the purview the school district’s mission, he said.
Public safety is, however, one of city government’s top priorities, Parks said.
Parks conceded the FEMA contract could prevent use of the arts center as a community shelter. But he said the city and district could make alternatives available, such as the old junior high and locker rooms at the junior high and high school gymnasium, as they had in the past.
“I think the city and the district should collaborate closely to serve the community, as should all our public entities,” Parks said.
Wagner said officials from both parties met once to discuss the issue and would again. He called for the city and the district to work together to educate the public on the need to develop storm plans that would get people to safety in their neighborhoods. He also suggested the city budget include funds to provide 100 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radios free to the public. The mayor said the city couldn’t force the owners of the two mobile home parks to build shelters but also would make that request.
Sumner urged him to act quickly.
“They say it’s going to be an active year,” she said.