Few Iowa schools districts have so-called “safe rooms” for students when severe storms strike. Mark Schouten, director of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management agency, says schools can qualify for federal grants.
“I can tell you this: there aren’t enough safe rooms in our state’s schools,” Schouten says. “The number of safe rooms have increased. We have FEMA hazard mitigation dollars that we are using for a number of safe rooms throughout the state. It is something that is increasing. We are promoting it.”
Schouten’s agency has been involved in helping 33 Iowa districts secure grants to help construct 40 safe rooms in Iowa schools. The combined cost of those 40 project is $42 million, because safe rooms aren’t cheap.
“I think you can nearly double the average building cost to put that safe room in that place,” Schouten says. “You’re adding secure ceilings, secure walls and then a very strong door. It’s going to increase the cost significantly, but if needed during the course of an emergency (it’s) well worth the expenditure.”
Some Iowa schools have basements where students and staff retreat when a tornado warning is issued. Seven children were killed in Oklahoma last May when their school was struck by a powerful tornado. In 2007, eight were killed when a tornado hit an Alabama school.
“It clearly is an important thing to keep our school children safe in the case of a tornado or other severe weather,” Schouten says.
The state’s building code does not require schools that lack basement space to install the extra fortification for these so-called “safe” rooms. Governor Branstad says “local control” is important to maintain for Iowa schools and state officials should not dictate that kind of school safety decision.