Morning Sun
  • EDITORIAL: Storm shelter decision leaves city unprotected

  • With the six-month anniversary of the Joplin tornado quickly approaching, it’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder whether Pittsburg is any safer now in case of a tornado than it was six months ago.

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  • With the six-month anniversary of the Joplin tornado quickly approaching, it’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder whether Pittsburg is any safer now in case of a tornado than it was six months ago.
    And the short answer is no.
    On Tuesday, city commissioners voted against a plan that would have built a storm shelter for at least 3,000 people, that would have been affordable and would have been of benefit to the parks and recreation department for years to come.
    But instead, the city commission said no.
    For months, city staff has been working with the Kansas Department of Emergency Management to pursue available grants. After revisions and updated plans, city staff had narrowed on a storm shelter on North Locust in Pittsburg that would hold about 3,000 people and cost about $1.5 million. With a grant in place, the project would only have cost the city $400,000.
    “It’s a reality if we want to make it a reality,” said public utilities director John Bailey.
    The city commissioners rejected the plan for several reasons, but among the chief concern was money. Commissioners believed they didn’t have the money available.
    That’s where they’re wrong. Earlier this year, the city was told by finance director Jon Garrison that it had about $4.5 million in bonding authority (ability to borrow) without raising the mill levy, which commissioners are desperate to avoid.
    Since that time, the commission has committed to $1 million in improvements to Atkinson and Homer projects, $200,000 to the intersection improvements at 20th and Broadway, and $2.3 million for the Quincy Street improvements.
    That leaves $1 million.
    That’s $1 million that could be used to protect citizens in the case of a tornado. The price tag for the storm shelter is only $400,000. Technically, if the city wanted to use the building for much else besides protecting its residents in a severe storm, it would probably require another $100,000 or more, still leaving the city with about a half a million in case something pops up.
    Commissioners expressed a fear of committing to too many projects. Specifically, they worried that the storm shelter would limit their ability to spend if something comes up in the next 5-6 years.
    But what’s more important than a storm shelter? It seems the commission is saying $500,000 is just too much to spend to provide protection to its residents.
    It’s not like other cities haven’t found the money. Roseland, a much smaller town in Cherokee County, was able to afford a storm shelter thanks to careful planning by its city leaders and mayor, who is 86 years old. Cherokee is also waiting to hear back about a grant with the intent of having its own storm shelter.
    But Pittsburg, which has the most resources and the most need for shelter, has nowhere for its residents to go, thanks to poor planning by its city commissioners.
    Page 2 of 2 - Pittsburg commissioners also expressed a fear of thousands of people driving to one place if a tornado is on its way. But that one place is a tornado shelter, designed to protect them from just such an occasion. Isn’t that better than staying in mobile homes or houses without a basement, or driving the streets looking for somewhere to go?
    Commissioners have repeatedly brought up using existing structures, such as churches and other buildings to provide a safe storm shelter. After rejecting the plan, they asked Bailey to examine those existing buildings, and perhaps hire a consultant — which would cost money — to see if some of those sites could be deemed or built up to be wind-resistant (a distinction not near as safe as a certified storm shelter). But churches and private buildings are putting themselves at risk to potential lawsuits by doing so, and it should not their responsibility. It should be the City of Pittsburg’s responsibility.
    City commissioner Patrick O’Bryan spoke out about being against the storm shelter, and noted, “We’ve made some mistakes in buildings built the last few years that have no safe rooms.”
    He’s right. The city commission holds the responsibility for that. And they’re making another mistake in not building a storm shelter to rectify those past mistakes.
    Perhaps the city commission is right that the storm shelter puts too many people at risk. But by shuffling the responsibility onto other organizations, missing the boat with recent facilities, and rejecting an affordable opportunity to do something about a safe storm facility, the city has done plenty of that already.
    How long will it take for the city to learn a lesson from Joplin? It’s been too long already.

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