January 14, 2020 9:50:20 AM
STARKVILLE -- Oktibbeha County's first storm shelter has come in handy three times in the past month, but county leaders say there is still work to be done to make sure it can accommodate the public.
About 10 people showed up when the shelter first opened Dec. 16 and about 40 at the end of the month, when weather forecasts predicted possible tornadoes in addition to strong thunderstorms. About 125 were there during the storm Friday night and Saturday morning, Emergency Management Agency Director Kristen Campanella said.
The county needs to implement security at the shelter, adjust parking accommodations and finalize a rule on whether pets are allowed, she said.
"We discovered that the opening of the storm shelter had many more responsibilities than we realized, so therefore we're trying to backtrack," District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer said.
County officials started planning the shelter in 2014, after a tornado outbreak ravaged Mississippi, including an EF-4 tornado that devastated Louisville. What was originally planned to be a 20,000 square-foot, $4.2 million structure was scaled down to 8,756 square feet, with 7,915 square feet of usable space, and cost $2 million. It can withstand winds of up to 250 miles per hour.
The shelter is designed to accommodate 1,582 people, but it needs to have enough chairs, tables and other amenities to keep people comfortable for indefinite periods, as well as enough personnel to oversee the building, Trainer said.
"We need somebody working the front desk and keeping people up to date on the weather and stuff," he said. "We've got the building, but now we need to sit down and come up with some positive defenders and the equipment we're supposed to have."
Campanella said at the Jan. 6 board of supervisors meeting that the shelter needs at least two security personnel and that bailiffs from the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office might be an option. Starkville city police are another option, District 1 Supervisor and Board President John Montgomery told The Dispatch, but he and Trainer both said the county should be cognizant not to limit law enforcement's resources during an emergency.
"We're trying to keep it so we have security there at that fixed location amongst different entities, but when you have a storm, city police and the county sheriff (need) to still respond," Montgomery said.
Additionally, the shelter's parking lot only has so much space, he said.
"Any time you have a lot of people coming to an area, be it a football game or an emergency (shelter), you're going to have some bottlenecking," Montgomery said.
The domed shelter is located at the intersection of Lynn Lane and Industrial Park Road, near the Starkville Sportsplex and McKee Park, and is also available for community meetings and events. A Federal Emergency Management Agency grant paid for about $1.44 million of the $1.85 million needed for construction, with the county contributing the remaining $412,919.
The shelter currently does not allow pets that are not registered service animals, and some county citizens have taken to social media to complain about this, District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller said at the Jan. 6 meeting. The supervisors debated changing the rule, but the issues of pet allergies and the amount of space in the shelter led them to decide to keep the existing rule for now, though the decision was not final.
The board also shelved a discussion over a name for the shelter in April 2018. Supervisors were torn between former County Administrator Don Posey or former Emergency Management Director Jim Britt as the building's namesake and debated whose contributions to the early planning stages of the shelter were more valuable.
In addition to the shelter, First United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church are Red Cross-designated shelters for food and housing, respectively, if a disaster displaces a large number of people, Campanella said. EMA and the Red Cross are looking for other potential overnight shelters throughout the county, she said.
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