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Alabamians Team Up to Prepare for Natural Disasters

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley opened the Safer Alabama Summit Monday [June 11, 2011] at the University of Alabama Bryant Conference Center in Tuscaloosa. The summit brought together local communities, state and federal agencies, nonprofits, the private sector, and the public to identify resources to make Alabama safer.

Hosted by the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, attendees at the summit included state and local officials, financial organizations, contractors, builders, engineers, academic and scientific departments, and organizations, insurance companies, trade associations and other stakeholders.

"People who have not seen it don't understand. This disaster affected the entire state," Bentley told the attendees, adding that, "I hope the rest of the country looks at Alabama one day and says that's how you handle a disaster."

Tuscaloosa's Mayor Walter Maddox and Phil Campbell Mayor Jerry Mays spoke about the recovery efforts in their communities, which were among the hardest hit by severe storms and tornadoes in April.

"Behind everything there's a mother, a father, a friend, someone trying to pay a mortgage, some trying to buy groceries," Maddox said, pointing out that in 6 minutes 7,300 homes and businesses were destroyed in his community.

Mays said that in Phil Campbell the tornadoes killed 27 people and caused $119 million in damage. He pointed out that about 5 years ago a 15-person community shelter was installed in his community. More than 50 people used the shelter during the storm and all survived. "We just need more of them," he said.

Jim Stefkovich, Meteorologist-In-Charge of the Birmingham Forecast Office since 2005, explained how 64 tornadoes touched down on April 27, 2011.

"The question isn't if it will happen again, but when," he said.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Ernst Kiesling, who leads the storm shelter research effort within the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Technological University, pointed out the importance of safe rooms. Kiesling is also executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, a nonprofit trade association with a program for standards compliance verification of storm shelters.

There is a difference between a safe room and a storm shelter. A storm shelter can offer limited protection from natural disasters even if not built to FEMA safe room specs, but a safe room is a structure in a building, either public or private, built to FEMA specifications that can provide near-absolute protection from a major wind event. Alabama has a law that requires new schools to have an Alabama Building Commission approved safe space or hallway, but safe rooms are not required in homes or businesses.

Experts at the summit encouraged attendees to go back to their communities, look for opportunities and locations for safe rooms, and then, in conjunction with state, federal and other agencies, work on ways to fund and install them.

Five safe rooms were on display at the summit to illustrate the building techniques required to withstand an EF5 tornado in the home, workplace, and in public buildings. The safe rooms will now be placed on display at locations throughout the state.

For information about safe rooms; how they are constructed, where to obtain expert advice, and what resources are available to defray costs:

  • FEMA offers blueprints for safe rooms with near-absolute protection in FEMA publication 320. The designs in FEMA 320 can be built by most residential contractors.
  • FEMA publication 361. The information in FEMA 361 is about community safe rooms.
  • FEMA publication 453 offers information to assist in the planning and design of shelters that may be constructed outside or within dwellings or public buildings.
  • Safe rooms complying with the National Storm Shelter Association standard meet all FEMA criteria as stated in FEMA publication 320.

FEMA Release Date: June 15, 2011
FEMA Release Number: 1971-095
FEMA's mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.