FEMA Disaster and Emergency Advice: Safe Rooms: Don’t Be Without One

Ever since he narrowly survived a tornado as a young boy, Robert Clemons has possessed a healthy respect for these destructive and often deadly phenomena. So he was prepared for the twister that tore through his property along County Road 469 south of Oxford in late April 2011. Clemons, his wife Patsy, her sister Betty, and their little dog rode out the tornado in a concrete safe room that he had installed in 2006.

That early brush with a tornado convinced Robert Clemons that “everybody who lives in tornado-prone area should have a safe place to go during tornadoes and strong thunderstorms. I’ve always had some kind of a storm shelter,” said Clemons, now 74 and a life-long resident of northern Mississippi. He grew up in the Lafayette Springs area east of Oxford, later lived in Oxford for many years and has lived at his current address for 26 years. In one of his homes, a basement offered a relatively safe refuge from tornadoes. Before he had a safe room at his home on County Road 469, he did have that “hole in the ground” dug into a hillside and covered by a heavy tree trunk.

The 2011 tornado season started early in Mississippi, when seven twisters touched down in the state in the first 3 hours of January 1. The tornado that struck south of Oxford on April 27 brought winds estimated at 140 miles per hour (rated an EF-3 storm), which caused extensive damage to homes along CR 469, including that of Robert and Patsy Clemons.

The Clemons had sat out a few thunderstorms in their safe room since they had it built, and even got in a practice run during the morning of April 27 as several storm warnings were issued. In early afternoon, as Mr. Clemons was watching a baseball game on television, he “figured it was time to get an update on the tornado situation,” only to learn that one was fast approaching their area. He and his family made their way to the safe room with little time to spare – just several minutes before the tornado reached them at about 1:30 p.m. Robert estimates they spent about 2 hours inside the room, even though the worst of the wind was over in just a few minutes.

Clemons got his safe room through the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency’s (MEMA’s) “A Safe Place to Go” program, which reimburses eligible homeowners in affected counties 75 percent (to a maximum of $4,000) of the cost of a safe room. Details of this program can be found at MEMA’s Web site (go to http://www.msema.org and select Safe Rooms).

“A safe room is good insurance and a good investment,” concluded Robert Clemons. “After this tornado, I wouldn’t be without a safe room, and I hope everybody in this part of the country is soon able to get one of their own.”

For additional information, contact the FEMA Safe Room Help Line at 866-222-3580 or at saferoom@dhs.gov. The help line provides information on where to go for assistance regarding hazard mitigation grants and other grant funding, project eligibility, and guidelines for safe room construction. FEMA’s safe room web site (http://www.fema.gov/plan/prevent/saferoom) is another source of information.

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