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IT'S OUR TURN: Grant could help us brace for the next tornado

The time to talk about tornadoes is when they aren't around to listen.

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You might have noticed, a tornado hit our town on Oct. 9.

Fortunately, our twister caused no injuries. Though some people were miffed when I reported “minor” damage at Park Rapids Ford, Faithbridge Church and a private home, let’s be honest. Their walls remain right-side up.

Sure, some trees came down; a TV tower toppled; a couple of roofs were torn up; a power pole snapped; some windows broke; a trailer was thrown around; a dumpster rammed the side of a building. I’m not minimizing it. But it wasn’t Joplin, Mo.

In 2011, an EF-5 twister killed 158 people in the southwest Missouri city. It injured more than 1,000 and flattened buildings along a 22-mile path that sometimes stretched almost a mile wide.

Our tornado, thank God, was only an EF-1. But statistically, Minnesota isn’t any safer from tornadoes than Missouri. In fact, the two states experience the ninth and 10th most tornadoes annually.

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both states averaged about 45 tornadoes per year in observation data from 1991 to 2010.

We’re not part of Tornado Alley, but we’re no strangers to tornadoes either. The fact that we were winged this year doesn’t mean we won’t take a direct hit some other time.

Protection from this danger sounds to me like a worthwhile investment for our community. The sweet part is, a big chunk of the money could come from other people.

You see, there’s federal money for community tornado shelters. Two towns in my old neighborhood of Missouri got them – buildings designed to withstand an F-5 tornado, funded up to $4 million by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant pays up to 75% of awarded projects (90% for small, poor areas), though only for the building’s shell. It’s up to local governments to furnish the rest, plus interior finishes.

One of those two towns got a theater; the other got a gym that became part of a big school improvement project. Both facilities are open to the public at all hours, so anyone close enough to get there within five minutes of the sirens going off can get in before the shelter locks down. During school hours, a big part of the population is already practically there.

I know: Federal money ultimately comes from taxpayers, so it’s not free. But the U.S.A. has a bigger tax base than our area, so it hurts a lot less.

No, we don’t need another performance theater like the Armory or another high school gym like the one already slated to be built by a voter-approved bond. But design hasn’t been completed on the new high school wing and an auditorium upgrade is also in the cards.

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Maybe, if the PRoject 309 folks are open to looking at a FEMA grant, some of those bond dollars could be repaid sooner. Maybe it could help the school get more bang for its buck. Or maybe, with everyone in a five-minute radius benefiting from the shelter, the county and city could pitch in.

I’m not saying it wouldn’t cost local taxpayers money. It could be a small amount, though, if all we want is a tornado shelter. Finishing it as a theater or gym could be left for later or never.

Last month we got a reminder that if a tornado has our name on it, a hole in the roof is as lightly as we can hope to be let off. Knowing that, it feels weird to leave a wad of federal money on the table, or not to check whether it’s even there.

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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