With no officially designated tornado shelters in Pratt, it's time to make a plan

Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Pratt County Emergency Management Director Tim Branscom checks out a safe shelter kick-back program from the state on his office computer in Pratt. He said it is important that Pratt people know they need to plan ahead for storm emergencies.

The City of Pratt and Pratt County have been included in many tornado watches in the past 20 years but is has been at least that long since a tornado actually threatened the rural population center. Pratt County Emergency Management Director Tim Branscom is just a bit worried that people might not be aware they need an emergency plan in place should such a danger become a reality.

"We actually have no designated shelters in Pratt that have been built to FEMA safety standards," Branscom said. "There are places to go, but they are not approved and cannot be recommended as tornado shelters because of liability reasons. It's time for everyone to make sure they have a plan in case of several weather. Individuals, families and neighbors with no basements need to know what their safety plan is before it becomes an emergency."

According to Branscom, it is possible that the ACE building in the USD 382 Pratt school system is considered a safe shelter. Others places high on the list of consideration of where to go in case of a tornado include Pratt Community College's basement level below the student center, the basement of the First United Methodist Church, other churches, or even the current law enforcement center on Ninniscah Street. But Branscom said people need to contact those places on their own to make storm shelter arrangements if they need protection from a tornado, and they need to understand those are not FEMA-certified tornado shelters.

The new Pratt County Public Safety Building under construction just east of Pratt city limits near U.S. Highway 54/400 will have two FEMA-approved storm shelters, but these rooms will not be large enough to host a large population of people.

"Those shelters there are just going to be big enough for employees or people on duty at the facility at time of a dangerous storm," Branscom said. "One room is a small computer room where storm watchers will monitor weather equipment - likely three or four people at the most will fit there."

Branscom said the other storm shelter at the public safety building will be a large training room, 20' X 25', that will have furniture and cabinets on the floor set up for meetings. There will not be room for more than 20-30 people in that room, at the most, at that facility.

Branscom said a solution proposed by the state of Kansas to correct the lack of community FEMA shelters is a rebate program for the construction of residential safe rooms, so that each household will have a safe haven from a tornado emergency.

"We are trying to get the word out about this safe-room construction reimbursement program," Branscom said. "It is just for residential home-owners who want to build a FEMA safe room in their own homes. There is government money to reimburse some of those expenses."

The state of Kansas, through the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, has initiated the Sunflower Safe Residential Safe Room Program to provide a rebate for the purchase and installation of a residential safe room for Kansas homeowners.

Kansas homeowners may earn a rebate up to $3,500 per home or 75% of the safe room cost, whichever is less. This program is designed to provide a rebate for the purchase and installation of a residential safe room for Kansas homeowners.

"People need to understand that they have to submit a plan and have their application selected at the state level for approval before they go out and buy or build a safe room," Branscom said. "There is no reimbursement unless the state has certified the building plan from the start."

The program, funded through the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, requires that applicants must comply with all federal grant regulations, including eligibility of properties and other required documentation.

The Sunflower Safe rebate program is currently taking applications for homeowners that reside in Kansas. The deadline for application is June 19, 2021.

To be eligible, the safe room must be installed at a primary residence; cannot be in an apartment complex, duplex, or other multifamily residence; if planned for a mobile home must include proof of ownership for the home and the land it is located on. Previously installed safe rooms or safe rooms in the process of being built are not eligible. Retrofitting or repairing an existing storm shelter to meet FEMA specifications does not qualify. Homes in the floodplain with flood insurance are eligible for an above-ground safe room. The safe room must be installed in Kansas and homeowners may not build or install the safe room themselves.

Additional information on program eligibility is available in the program handbook. Eligible applicants are randomly selected as funding becomes available and eligibility does not guarantee funding. A program handbook, FAQs and additional information are available at https://kansastag.gov/KDEM.asp?PageID=4651.

"It is my understanding that there are not a lot of applications turned in for this program, so if anyone needs to build a safe room in Pratt, now would be a good time to get on it and apply for this funding help," Branscom said.

He can be reached at the Pratt County Emergency Management Office by those with any questions about safe shelter in Pratt at (620) 672-4132.

The City of Iuka is in the planning stages of building a FEMA-certified storm shelter and Skyline School is also looking into adding a FEMA storm shelter when they expand school locker rooms and showers for athletes.