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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Students now sheltered from the storms

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Alton School District students did their first tornado drill May 8 in their new FEMA storm shelter. However, the drill turned out to be the real thing as straight line winds in a storm system hurled through the area. Superintendent Shelia Wheeler said everything went smoothly. Photo by Emily McIntosh
The first tornado drill Alton R-IV School District students went through with the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) storm shelter was actually a real, live situation on May 8 during storms which produced, in some areas, 80 mph straight line winds.

According to Superintendent Shelia Wheeler, the 9,600 square foot building was substantially complete. Contractors gave school officials a walk-through of the building and keys to the building were given to school officials May 7, one day before students had to use the building for safety from stormy weather.

Good timing, most would say about completion of the shelter.

Wheeler said the process of receiving the grant from FEMA and construction of the shelter took about four years. She said it took the school two trys to get the grant money. The first time the application wasn't accepted, but the second time the school applied they won the grant for $1,226,000 with a 10 percent match. "We've just been working on it ever since, jumping through the hoops and all the requirements that goes along with getting federal funds," Wheeler said.

The superintendent said the building can withstand 250 mph winds. "I hope we never see that happen," Wheeler said.

The shelter is equipped with a generator, direct-line computers so emergency personnel can track radar, and outside phone line and a NOAA weather radio.

She said the building can hold about 1,600 people, so it was able to hold the entire school and then some on Friday. "We can take townspeople and residents within a two mile radius (into the shelter)," Wheeler said. In fact, she said, about 50 residents used the building during the early morning hours of May 13 for shelter during some storms that went through the area. She said the shelter was open from midnight to 2 a.m.

"We work with our city emergency management personnel, and they're the ones that are responsible for setting off the city tornado sirens. So, when a (tornado) watch comes up, we have a list of our staff who are on alert (to) prepare the building," Wheeler said. "Then, Samuel Barton, our city emergency person, calls the designated person on the list to come and keep the building open."

Wheeler said the following morning after school officials received the keys to the building, they knew bad weather was coming. Fortunately, the school already had a plan of action in place and was ready to follow it, Wheeler said.

"Of course we hadn't been able to fully stock our building and those things, but we decided that it would be a very good thing to get our students into the building," Wheeler said. She said the students stayed in the building from 9:15 a.m. to about 10:30 a.m., when they knew the coast was clear.

"That was our first drill, and our first drill was the real thing," she said. "All of our faculty and staff just did a great job of making sure that everything went smoothly and everyone was safely inside the building."

An open house of the Alton School Tornado Shelter is scheduled for May 23 from 3 to 5 p.m. All are welcome to attend.

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