Hattiesburg American

Forrest County schools will soon have a new way of responding to tornado warnings

By Ellen Ciurczak

Mike Papas has one emergency storm shelter under his belt and five to go.

The auxiliary services director for Forrest County School District is overseeing construction of six safe rooms for the district. The one at Dixie Attendance Center was recently finished.

"We had the final walk-through," Papas said. "We're finishing the emergency plans for (how to respond to) weather-related events.

"We'll be ready when the students show up Aug. 6. It'll be ready for use."

Twelve schools in Forrest County are getting the Federal Emergency Management Agency above-ground, dome-shaped shelters, which are built to withstand 250 mile-per-hour, E5 tornado winds.

The shelters are one large room that comes with restrooms, lighting, fans, heating and air conditioning. 

The safe room at Dixie can hold about 800 people — more than enough for the kindergarten through eighth-grade school's about 510 children and additional staff and faculty.

Hattiesburg Public School District elected not to participate in the Hazard Mitigation grant program pursued by the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, which provided $1 million for each shelter, with a 10 percent match from each school district. 

Forrest County Agricultural School District received one shelter, while Petal School District got five and Papas' district got six.

All are in different stages of construction, but all will provide better protection from a tornado than the protocols students go through now.

"Currently, as you get information from emergency management, you would (put the students) in the hallway away from windows and doors," said Petal Schools Superintendent Matthew Dillon. "Now, with advance notice, we'll be able to get the children to the storm shelters."

Being ensconced in a storm shelter will be much safer for students than crouching in a hallway, covering their heads with their hands and arms.

Approximately one and a half years after an EF3 tornado struck Hattiesburg and Petal, and five years after an EF4 twister hit the same areas, the safe rooms are welcome.

Senators Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Mississippi, along with the late Senator Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, and Congressman Steve Palazzo, R-Mississippi were instrumental in getting the Hazard Mitigation grants for many of the shelters.

"After witnessing the devastation caused by tornadoes in Hattiesburg...I am glad to see FEMA is working with Forrest County to take proactive steps to protect Mississippians," Palazzo said in a news release. "This is an example of a great federal investment that will save lives during future severe weather events."

FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant program provides funding to state and local governments for long-term hazard mitigation activities designed to reduce loss of life and property due to natural disasters.

At Forrest County School District, the other five shelters are in various stages of construction, Papas said.

"They have one full year for the work to be completed," he said. "We have seven to eight months left on the contract.

"The progress is going well."

Papas said the shelters are much-needed.

"The (school) buildings are older, and they are not built to withstand tornadic events the way these shelters are," he said.

At Forrest County Agricultural High School District, Superintendent Donna Boone is feeling grateful the school's shelter is done.

It has an 830-person capacity — more than enough for the school's approximately 600 students and 50-60 staff and teachers.

"We have so many buildings on campus," Boone said. "Now to be able to put everybody into one, secure building makes me feel better.

"We are thrilled to be able to start the new school year with this building on campus."

All the emergency storm shelters are essentially the same — with the same amenities. They may differ in size to accommodate different-sized school populations.

"I think for our district it comes at a great time," Dillon said. "We've had a lot of inclement weather that we've had to dodge.

"It's an advantage for us."

Petal School District will have to wait awhile longer to use its shelters. Four of the five are under construction, with Petal Upper Elementary not broken ground yet because of some logistical issues with the site.

Dillon expects the other four shelters to be completed during the 2019-2020 school year.

The shelters are also designed to be used by school officials for such things as band practice or athletic activities, as long as no furniture is permanently placed in them.

But for all superintendents, the intended use of shelter during a storm is most important.

"It's another added layer of protection," Dillon said. "Weather is one of the things we deal with frequently in South Mississippi so this will give us (shelter) when we are dodging bad weather."

At a glance

  • Forrest County schools' emergency storm shelters
  • Forrest County School District: North Forrest High (occupancy 784), North Forrest Elementary (occupancy 379), Rawls Springs (occupancy 236), Earl Travillion (occupancy 400), South Forrest (occupancy 784), Dixie (Completed. Occupancy 835)
  • Forrest County Agricultural High School District: Occupancy 830
  • Petal School District: Petal Primary (occupancy 1,238), Petal Elementary (occupancy 756), Petal Upper Elementary (occupancy 732), Petal Middle (occupancy 804), Petal High (occupancy 1,392)