State Rep. Pat Ownbey has requested a legislative study to determine how the state can better incentivize greater access to storm shelters during severe weather.
“Oklahoma is tornado central; we just saw another set of devastating tornadoes hit the center of the state recently,” Ownbey (R-Ardmore) said. “I think it is important to see what the best options we have to address tornado deaths, to see if there isn’t something we can do to better protect Oklahomans.”
Multiple tornadoes touched down on May 24, damaging the Chickasha, Canton Lake and Piedmont communities and resulting in several deaths. However, it was the Lone Grove tornado that brought the issue to Ownbey’s attention, he said.
“The Lone Grove tornado took the lives of several Oklahomans,” Ownbey said. “Lives could have been saved if there had been greater access to tornado shelters.”
In 1999, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began the Oklahoma Residential Shelter Initiative. The rebate program was funded with $12 million in federal hazard mitigation funds. It resulted in the creation of 6,016 safe room shelters throughout Oklahoma.
In 2003, Oklahoma authorized Operation Safe Room, which was a similar rebate program giving more than $3 million in rebates by paying 75 percent of the cost of a storm shelter, up to a $2,000 maximum. Residents were given 30 days to register with the program and had to complete construction within 14 months.
That same year, the Tornado Shelters Act authorized the use of community development block grant funds for the creation of tornado shelters in manufactured home parks.
Storm shelter registries exist in many Oklahoma cities and counties, but there is no single statewide point of contact. These registries are voluntary and are designed to assist emergency workers find people who have survived severe weather in their storm shelter but may be trapped by debris and unable to leave.
“These are just some of the programs and issues we will examine in the study,” Ownbey said. “I think there may already be some opportunities to increase the number of shelters in Oklahoma.”