City officials discuss lack of storm shelters

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun

PITTSBURG, Kan. — While several other communities in Crawford County including Girard, Arma, Cherokee, McCune and Frontenac have storm shelters available to the public, even though it is the largest city in the county, Pittsburg does not have any designated public tornado shelters. 

The issue came up at Tuesday’s Pittsburg City Commission meeting, where local resident Virginia Darling spoke during public input to voice her concerns about the city’s tornado preparedness, or lack thereof. 

“I saw on Facebook where surrounding towns have shelters, yet nothing was listed for Pittsburg,” Darling said. “I was told these towns received grants in helping to establish tornado shelters for their community, and if Pittsburg wants to apply for a grant in the future to help protect its citizens, I think that would be wonderful, but tornado season is upon us. Many people in Pittsburg do not have a basement and they need a safe place to shelter.” 

Darling pointed out that in the past, thankfully, Pittsburg has been spared from major tornados. But the city should still have public shelters available, she said, in case it ever sees any change to its luck in dodging twisters. She also offered a potential solution for the city to consider. 

“I would recommend that there would be at least three public places for people to shelter: north, middle and southern part of Pittsburg. Five, ideally, would be north, south, east and west and in the center of Pittsburg,” Darling said.  

“Could we not have a central command location, such as the police station here, where a remote opener could unlock one door at any location that is selected? And a police officer or a firefighter could be assigned to that location, and when the sirens sound the remote opener opens the door and the person in charge monitors and directs people to the safety room, and when the all-clear sounds, people leave and the officer locks up.” 

Darling said her idea was just one possible solution, and she is aware that other ideas have likely been suggested in the past. Mayor Chuck Munsell said her concerns were “very valid.” In addressing them later in the meeting, though, City Manager Daron Hall questioned whether Darling’s suggestion would be practical. 

“The idea of naming a city facility as a storm shelter brings in a host of issues from the professionals that we defer to when you have people in a community that are out and about trying to get to a shelter that the city somehow operates,” he said.  

“You talk about turning power on and off. If the power goes out in the community, electronically opening and unlocking doors isn’t an option, so we have to have people do that,” Hall said. “If we have people do that, I’ve got employees that are scurrying all over town in the middle of a tornado trying to make it to a shelter to get a door unlocked. If they don’t show up, if they don’t make it, then I’ve got people that were in town that made it to the shelter and the shelter’s not unlocked and they’re standing outside the shelter.” 

In the past, Darling said, she and her family have sheltered at Ascension Via Christi Hospital. She asked if it was still open to the public, but Hall said he could not comment. 

“We don’t own the hospital and I don’t think they would want me talking for them,” he said.  

Ascension Via Christi Senior Marketing and Communications Specialist Michelle Kennedy said in an email Wednesday that the hospital has a severe weather plan in place for patients and associates, but while it would not turn people away it does not advertise itself as a public shelter. Ascension Safety Officer James Catt added that the hospital does not technically have a “tornado shelter” but its severe weather plan involves moving patients and associates to more secure areas of the hospital, which is also what it would do in the case of community members seeking shelter from a tornado. 

Hall similarly said that if community members happened to be at a city facility with a basement that could potentially serve as a storm shelter, such as City Hall or Memorial Auditorium, they wouldn’t be turned away, but that designating city facilities as go-to storm shelters is a more complicated proposition. 

“As the clouds get thick and windy, this is the time of year when we always talk about tornados. Unfortunately, it usually puts the city in a tough spot. We have 20,000 people that we care deeply about and try to provide all aspects of public safety, but when it comes down to tornados and severe weather, we usually defer to the weather people and the emergency management coordinator for the county,” Hall said. 

“So, it’s something we hear all the time. We balance that with our ability to have shelters, fund shelters, which is obviously a struggle. Anybody that’s aware of how we’ve done the homeless shelter, there was grant money available for that, we jumped right in and built that, and lo and behold 10 years later it’s not even a shelter option for us, so there’s no guarantee that — unless you own it outright and you can afford to pay for it and operate it — that you’re going to have it.” 

Darling also mentioned that it was her understanding that the public could use storm shelters at Pittsburg Community Schools, but only during the day when the schools are open. As was the case with Ascension Via Christi, Hall said he could not speak for the school district. A spokesperson for the district, which is on spring break this week, was unable to provide an official statement from district leadership by press time.  

Hall said the city government could potentially invest in providing better storm shelter options for the public but doing so would put the city “in a very interesting position” and pose significant challenges.  

“There’s just a host of issues. I’m not saying that any of them are insurmountable, I’m not saying that it’s my decision alone to make, I’m just telling you the idea of public shelters that are sponsored and operated by the city puts us in a very interesting position. We’ve always said shelter in place. If you own a home, you should have a plan of where to go and what you’re going to do, but I understand that’s not the case for everybody,” Hall said.  

“So it’s definitely a quandary, it’s something that the staff addresses every spring as we walk through it. I don’t think it’s anything the commission’s addressed in my nine years here. And if you guys want to walk down that path, it’s there to be walked, but it doesn't have — there’s no easy answers at the end of it.”