CONWAY — Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson said he believes schoolchildren dying in tornadoes “is a paradigm we need to change,” and he’s been working quietly to do it.
Dodson’s vision includes helping come up with a plan for scalable, modular safe rooms that every school can afford.
The county, which he freely admits “has no authority over schools,” could help by writing a “best-practices document,” possibly even using county equipment to help build safe rooms.
“It is just unacceptable in 2013 that we as a society — and it’s not that we need to cast stones at school superintendents or legislators or anybody else, but let’s see what we can do,” Dodson said.
Dodson said he decided to take up the cause while working on the ExxonMobil pipeline rupture in Mayflower in March.
“I was 100 percent in emergency-response frame of mind,” he said.
Then a tornado hit Moore, Okla., in May, killing 23 people — seven of them children — and destroying two elementary schools.
“It really just struck a chord with me that you know what; it’s 2013, and Oklahoma City and Moore, Okla., are as close to the epicenter of tornado alley as one can get, and they had notice, and schoolchildren still were killed. The thought occurred to me: That is a paradigm we need to change.”
Dodson said he has spoken with “stakeholders at all levels,” from officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management to legislators and school superintendents.
“We can’t afford to spend $1 million on a safe room, as a society,” he said. “Therein lies the rub.”
He said safe rooms are “ad hoc all the way.”
“It’s a different project every time,” he said. “[Schools are] having to pitch it to the public, getting money to fund the things.
“Every one of them appears to be from scratch, so one deliverable from us is a best-practices document.”
For example, Dodson said, safe room proposals might include a schedule of deadlines.
“If you want a safe room in two years, you have to do these things by these dates, and here are some sources of money you can go after. That’s oversimplified; superintendents probably know the sources of money,” Dodson said.
“Let’s do a design that is scalable and modular so that we get rid of a lot of overhead in engineering and design, so we normalize it so cost is more predictable,” he said.
“We’re not inner city here; there are very few schools that don’t have some type of land available,” Dodson said.
He wants to take the idea further.
“Hey, let’s sponsor some legislation that makes it OK to let counties go do work in a school district, or we’ll put the [budget] numbers together and try to make it work in our district,’” he said.
Dodson said he has talked with Faulkner County legislators.
State Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said, “I talked to Judge Dodson about the idea and, obviously, Arkansas is typically hit with tornadoes every single season, and with the violent storms we’ve seen in Joplin and Oklahoma, I think it’s just a matter of time till you see that on the same scale in our state.
“I believe the ideas he’s talking about we should take a look at,” Rapert said.
“If we could incorporate, especially in new construction, for safe rooms to be built in the schools, it’s something we should look at,” he said.
“What I think should happen — and I’ve told this to Judge Dodson — he should get the idea to the point he’s ready to present,” Rapert said.
“The Education Committee would be a perfect place to present that, and I sit on that committee.”
Rapert said he would be “happy to facilitate that,” and said it likely would be in the 2015 session.
“I think we should get started sooner rather than later,” Rapert said.
Dodson said the county has construction experience, so helping build a safe room isn’t a stretch.
“Our county road department uses heavy equipment. … We build roads and bridges — big strong structures,” he said.
“I have spoken with product companies, too, on the engineering side of it,” he said.
“I am neither opposed or shy about approaching private companies and saying, ‘Would you take one for the team on this?’” and do it at a much-reduced rate or pro bono.
Many products are bid every year by the state of Arkansas, and if the state bids something out, counties or other government entities — schools or cities — can legally purchase those same products on those same contract terms.
If free-standing safe rooms aren’t feasible, he said, hallways could have FEMA-rated doors installed in them,” he said.
Most schools have something in the way of a safe room or a place students and staff gather during a tornado, he said.
However, Dodson said, “none of them has got 100 percent coverage, and that’s the key.”
Vilonia Superintendent Frank Mitchell agreed. The district has 3,200 students, and its three safe rooms hold “roughly 2,500,” he said.
He said two more safe rooms are needed: one for the middle school and one for the intermediate school under construction.
The safe room at the high school campus serves as a physical-education facility.
“It seems like it was a little over $1 million,” he said. After getting FEMA funding, the district paid 25 percent.
“If you put anything extra in there at all, you have to pay for it,” he said. “They give you so many square feet — they figure roughly 5 feet per person. It’s still a great deal for the school district to get.”
Mitchell said he likes what he hears from Dodson.
“I think it makes sense because this is an area that has had quite a few tornadoes over the years, and I think getting him behind it and getting a concerted effort in the counties is good,” Mitchell said.
A tornado ripped through Vilonia on April 25, 2011, killing five people, but the schools weren’t damaged, Mitchell said.
Mayflower School Superintendent John Gray said he hopes, too, that Dodson can make headway on the project.
“We have one safe room that we have built and have long-term plans to get two more,” Gray said.
“The current one holds 600 and was built underneath the middle-school addition.”
Because it isn’t FEMA-rated, he said, no federal funding was received for the safe room.
“We do need to add one at the elementary school,” he said. “Several years ago, we contacted FEMA and put ourselves on the waiting list.”
“We’ve got a location all planned. … We’ve got a vision out there where to put it,” Gray said.
He said an abandoned parent center on the elementary campus would be torn down to make room.
Gray said the 1,150-student district doesn’t have a lot of extra funding to use for the safe room, even if the FEMA grant comes through.
“We’re hoping the county judge can find sources of money and, with a FEMA grant, we can put it at our elementary school,” he said.
“We would like to have one, we need one, we have a location for one, and we support his efforts to try to help us get one,” Gray said.
Dodson said FEMA has a document of minimum specifications for safe rooms, and those specs have to be met to get federal funding.
“So that is terrific science, but it’s just a document. That’s not putting school safe rooms everywhere,” Dodson said.
“We need to connect the dots on this stuff,” Dodson said.
“Or let’s not do anything, and in March, somebody you know might die in a tornado here in Conway or Vilonia or Wooster,” he said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.