Area tornado shelter options discussed
Holton Mayor Robert Dieckmann was in attendance at a Beck Bookman Library board meeting on Tuesday, May 21 when the city’s tornado sirens began to sound, prompting Holton residents in the area to seek shelter at the Public Safety Building.
“I heard you could not get another person in there,” Dieckmann said during Monday’s Holton City Commission meeting, noting that he sought shelter elsewhere when the sirens sounded.
Holton City Clerk Teresa Riley said that about 120 people took shelter at the Public Safety Building’s basement that evening, and Dieckmann said that a sign is being considered for the library to direct patrons to the Public Safety Building when tornado sirens sound.
But not everyone in Holton or Jackson County has such easy access to a tornado shelter, whether they’re camping at Prairie Lake or watching TV at home when a tornado warning is announced. That has Dieckmann, his fellow city commissioners and Jackson County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Pat Korte concerned.
Korte said the Public Safety Building in Holton is the only “official” designated tornado shelter in Jackson County that is open to the public whenever people need to seek shelter from severe weather. She said she’s talked to the county’s smaller communities about establishing shelters, but there are questions about liability that must be answered first.
“With tornadoes, you pretty much need a basement,” Korte said. “For churches with basements, it’s kind of a liability, because if somebody’s not there to unlock the building and people are out there, that’s a liability. Unless a building is open 24-7, it’s kind of hard for cities to pick up shelters to move people into.”
Those concerns are compounded for campers out at city-owned Prairie Lake — where the campgrounds are packed with recreational vehicles for this weekend’s Prairie Lake Pickin’ Party — and the Jackson County-owned Banner Creek Reservoir grounds, where RVs can offer no shelter and not much else, if anything, is available to protect campers from severe weather.
“At Banner, the concrete bath houses could be considered an option — it’s better than being in your RV,” Korte said. “But I would get completely off the lake and watch the weather if it was me… Prairie Lake really doesn’t have a whole lot for shelter, so people just need to pay attention to the weather and leave the area quicker.”
Storm sirens sounded at both locations on May 21, Holton city officials noted, and even though both sirens are in good working order, “all we can do is warn them,” Holton City Manager Kerwin McKee said.
McKee also noted that the city’s storm sirens would be further tested after one area resident said she could not hear the sirens from inside her home. But while the sirens are intended mainly to alert people who are outdoors when severe weather approaches, “we still want to be diligent and make sure people can hear them,” he added.
For people whose residences don’t have a basement or a “safe room” to retreat to when tornado sirens start to sound, Korte has one piece of advice: Get acquainted with your neighbors who do.
“Get to know your neighbors, and see if they will share their basement or shelter space with you in an emergency,” she said.