FEMA funding still possible for Columbia high schools

Monday, August 29, 2011 | 10:49 a.m. CDT; updated 4:32 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 29, 2011

*CORRECTION: Columbia Public Schools conducted a cost-benefit analysis, which is required before the Federal Emergency Management Agency can extend a grant to build or design the additional material needed to make "safe rooms" in the new gyms at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools. An earlier version of this story did not specify that the applicant is responsible for conducting the analysis.

COLUMBIA — Although Columbia Public Schools has been denied funding from one revenue stream, the district still hopes to receive money to create federally approved "safe rooms" at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools.

Spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said that in October 2010, the district applied for a $3.1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to outfit new gymnasiums going up at the high schools for use as emergency storm shelters. 

The grant would have covered additional costs necessary to meet FEMA’s guidelines for safe rooms. Baumstark said the original fund, which was designated as “pre-disaster mitigation,” dried up with congressional budget cuts.

According to FEMA’s website, the pre-disaster fund is intended for states, communities, universities and other organizations to reduce the need for immediate funding from FEMA when a disaster strikes.

However, the district has applied to receive the grant from a different FEMA revenue stream for “post-disaster mitigation,” which might still have funds available, Baumstark said.

FEMA’s website states one purpose of the post-disaster fund is to award communities and other organizations money to pay for the extra costs to meet stringent building codes. The codes exceed normal requirements and are intended to make the buildings able to withstand high winds and rising waters.

Mike O'Connell, spokesman for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, which administers grants FEMA extends in its programs, said there are a few key requirements that go along with the grant. 

First, O’Connell said, the grant must be used to cover only the portions of construction necessary to make the space a FEMA-approved safe room. According to FEMA’s “Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms,” this would mean the gyms would have to have “near-absolute protection from extreme wind events."

*The district conducted a cost-benefit analysis, which is required before the state emergency management agency can extend the grant to build or design the additional material. The program also requires development of an operations and maintenance plan.

“This is not a reimbursement program,” O’Connell said. “For every dollar FEMA would put in, it would have to pay off.”

Adding two safe rooms to the community would be proactive, but not essential, for the safety of the community in an emergency, said Capt. Zim Schwartze, director of emergency management in Columbia. Schwartze said she works primarily with the American Red Cross to determine Columbia’s emergency sheltering needs.

“I would be reluctant to use schools,” Schwartze said. “I would be reluctant to inundate them with the public when they have their own needs for students and staff.”

Schwartze said most of the buildings in Boone County that could be designated as emergency shelters are churches, chosen because they typically have good accessibility, kitchens, bathrooms and showers.

However, she commended the district for trying to secure funds to make the gyms more storm resistant.

“This is very proactive on their part to have these available, should they need them,” Schwartze said.

Whether or not FEMA approves the grant, Baumstark confirmed they are to be constructed on schedule. The gyms were included in a $120 million bond issue approved by voters in April 2010.

Baumstark said the district will begin sending out bids in October and will award contracts to build the gyms in late November or early December. Demolition will begin at Hickman in late November to remove classroom spaces that will be replaced by the new gym.

The gyms are expected to be ready for use by August 2013, Baumstark said. Both high schools will continue to use their old gyms.

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Corey Parks August 29, 2011 | 9:12 p.m.

A place where a large group of people are herded in the event of an emergency by local officials is pretty much the last place you would ever want to go.

We're from the Gov't and we're here to help!

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