When it comes to shelter from the storm, you're mostly on your own

Thursday, April 6, 2006
Carroll County News reporter E. Alan Long looked over an underground shelter built in the 1960s by Arthur Carter, who was county judge at the time. Some local residents remember it as a Civil Defense shelter, but Carter's daughter, Ann, who was a youngster back then, said she thought it was a tornado shelter or a place for her family to go live should the Russians invade. Inside, a hallway leads to a large room, capable of holding several dozen people. Anna Mathews / Carroll County News

If a tornado is bearing down, you're likely on your own.

Carroll County, like many other areas around the county, has very few public storm shelters.

This is tough news for some, like Glenda Henderson, who cares for a wheelchair-bound stroke patient in her Berryville home.

When strong storms and tornados threatened late in the evening on March 12, Glenda was scared with no place to go.

"I just stayed in the house," she said. "I don't have a safe place inside. A neighbor has offered a basement, but because of the wheelchair, there is no way to get my patient down the stairs."

If Glenda lived in Eureka Springs, she would have a place to go.

Eureka Springs Police Chief Earl Hyatt said the basement of the police station is available and it's handicapped accessible. In fact, when the area was under a tornado threat May 12, he said local residents took cover in the basement.

He said the fire station basement might also be used as a storm shelter, along with the City Auditorium basement. "The Auditorium could be opened," he said. "We could get the keys."

Countywide, there is no coordination of designated storm shelters.

"We have nothing in place now," confirmed Tom Dugger, Carroll County's coordinator for the Office of Emergency Management. "It's something we need to work on. Shelters are expensive to build."

Dugger said churches, high school gyms and the National Guard Armory are some of the sites to be used in the event of a mass disaster, "if people are displaced," he explained.

"There is nothing in place now for tornado shelters," he continued. "If you're driving down the road and told to find shelter, you had better find something quick or find a ditch."

Sheriff Chuck Medford said he wasn't aware of any public storm shelters but supports the concept.

"I would strongly promote it and do whatever it takes to make it happen," he said. "If there is anyone out there who has something they would be willing to turn into a shelter, maybe a key could be left at the police station where there is someone on duty 24 hours to open it."

There are a few semi-private storm shelters in the county. Residents of Osage Point Mobile Home Park have access to a full basement that was constructed under the community laundry room to serve as a storm shelter. According to one of the residents, the shelter has benches and electric lights and serves the 30-some families who live in the park.

The Little Angels Child Development Center in Berryville, constructed in 2004, has a concrete bunker built into its design to serve as a tornado shelter. It is used daily as a baby and toddler room, but all children and staff would be ushered inside should a severe storm or tornado arise. It has a backup generator for power failure occurrences.

The existence of municipal shelters across the nation is spotty. As an example, Stillwater, Okla., utilizes four buildings at Oklahoma State University as public tornado shelters while residents of Broken Arrow have none.

In Sterling, Colo., city leaders have established five churches and the county courthouse as designated public shelters but many Kansas residents are without.

This is a far cry from the 1950s and early '60s when fallout shelters were plentiful.

People who remember World War II and the Cold War that followed are familiar with "duck and cover" exercises held in schools, Civil Defense fallout shelters and the rush by individuals to build fallout shelters in their own back yards.

Wanda McKinney remembers a Civil Defense shelter under the Berryville Post Office and on the square where public restrooms are now. She couldn't recall if people used those sites during tornado scares, but said, "I'm sure they did."

She also noted that Berryville City Hall has a basement below that could hold up to 50 people, but it's not a designated public shelter.

Long-timer Warren Tressler said there once was a storm cellar at the junction of U.S. Hwy. 62 and Ark. Hwy. 21 behind an old business.

Both he and McKinney remembered a fully-stocked Civil Defense shelter on Arthur Carter's property near the foot of Saunder's Mountain.

His daughter, Ann Carter, also remembers the shelter.

"It's still there," she said. "Dad built it during the Bay of Pigs crisis as a fallout shelter should the Russians arrive. I was about five at the time and knew that if a bomb went off, I'd have to go and live there."

Carter said she remembered it being stocked with cots, bottled water and canned goods.

"I didn't know if it was for the public," she commented. "Mutt McElyea was the civil defense director and was a friend of Dad's because he was judge at the time."

Carter said the shelter also provided a safe haven should a tornado come through.

"Dad was afraid of tornadoes," she recalled. "He had been taken to Green Forest as a little boy after a big tornado tore through the town and saw corpses laid out. It really left on impression on him.

"The shelter still exists and could be rehabbed and used," she continued. "It's a hump of ground with a rusty pipe sticking out. Dad had written 'Fraidy-Hole' inside the door. That might still be there.

"It still belongs to the Carter family," she added, "but the sale of the farm is pending."

An attempt to establish a new Saunder's area shelter took place several years ago when Warren Tressler suggested using an empty, hand-poured concrete water tank at the bottom of the mountain.

He said it was proposed as a Boy Scout project and he received an okay from city leaders to proceed.

According to Tressler, the water tank could hold up to 200 people once an entry door was cut in the top. Part of the problem at the time, he said, was developing a parking area, which could be done.

"We got the okay," Tressler remembered, "but the kids lost interest."

Tressler's shelter would not have been the first of its kind.

Ted Larimer, former mayor of Green Forest, said just such a shelter existed in his town.

"At one time, the old water tank on Cherry Street was a shelter, after they quit using it for water storage," he said. "I don't know of any public shelters now."

David Slaton, a captain at the Sheriff's Office, says he takes shelter in a basement at his home when tornados threaten, but that wasn't always the case.

He has a history with tornados and remembers Civil Defense shelters and "duck and cover" exercises at school as a kid growing up in Oklahoma.

"I remember going out in the school hallway and covering my head with my hands, and I remember a church basement one-half block from our house that was a Civil Defense shelter that could hold up to 400 people."

Slaton also recalled living in a rural area where there were no Civil Defense shelters.

"We were living in a rural area west of Oklahoma City," he said. "Our first year there, we lived in a trailer and within a month of moving in, a tornado went through the town and followed the creek within a quarter mile of our house. We hadn't met the neighbors yet, but we took off in the driving rain and wind and went to the neighbor's fraidy-hole. We got there just in time to open the door and get in. There were already 10 in there, 15 after we arrived, and we quickly introduced ourselves.

"Within a year," he continued, "we moved into a house with a root cellar. We had our own fraidy-hole. We were uptown!"

The public shelters were under the umbrella of the Office of Civilian Defense, a forerunner of today's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was created in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter.

While federally-sponsored shelters appear to be a thing of the past, there are isolated instances of funding assistance.

After Oklahoma's outbreak of tornadoes on May 3, 1999, the nation's first Safe Room rebate program was implemented. Through a partnership with FEMA, the 1999 program helped pay for more than 6,000 safe rooms, many of which were credited with saving lives when a string of tornadoes swept through four years later. In fact, there were numerous cases where a safe room was the only portion of a structure left standing.

Efforts are now underway in cities and towns across the nation to provide a safe haven in the event of a tornado threat.

In Sedalia, Mo., school students recently canvassed their county looking for potential storm shelters and reported their findings to county officials.

Some cities are considering the incorporation of public shelter areas into the design of future public facilities, such as fire stations, recreation centers, and libraries.

In the meantime, most Carroll County residents will have to fend for themselves, something they've been doing for many, many years.

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