The safe room at the Ozark Community Center was built to withstand 250 mph winds. (Photo by Susan Wade)

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The last thing you should do when a tornado warning is issued is figure out where to take shelter.

That plan should be in place long before angry clouds fill the sky.

It’s as simple as identifying the safest place you can go when a tornado touches down, such as a basement, storm cellar or an interior room with no windows on the lowest floor of your home or business.

For some, the best option may be a safe room that was built using criteria established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Christian County, nearly a dozen such shelters are available at public buildings.

Those shelters and others were built using FEMA grants established in response to the devastating tornadoes that hit Kansas and Oklahoma May 3-4, 1999, said Barb Sturner, external affairs specialist at FEMA’s Region 7 office in Kansas City.

Entities receiving FEMA grants for safe rooms must follow construction criteria that includes the building being able to withstand 250 mph winds and having exterior walls that are resistant to penetration by flying debris.

“If they use our money, there are rules they have to follow in order to get the grant,” Sturner said.

The trouble with travel during a storm

Ozark Community Center exterior
The Ozark Community Center is one of about a dozen facilities in Christian County with a safe room built using criteria established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Photo by Susan Wade)

While the safe rooms are excellent places to be when a tornado touches down, going out in a storm to get to one may not be a wise choice, said Phil Amtower, director of Christian County Emergency Management.

“If you’re going to go to a shelter, you need to know how long it’s going to take to get there,” Amtower said. “Sometimes it’s better to just stay at home.”

That’s especially true when a tornado warning is issued. A warning means a tornado was seen or indicated by radar, and going outside could be dangerous.

Don’t rely on outdoor sirens

Amtower said the most important thing to do is keep an eye on the weather and prepare to go to a shelter when a tornado watch is issued. A watch means conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop.

In many cases, however, people aren’t paying attention to local news reports and aren’t aware danger is imminent. Some people rely on storm sirens, but those can fail or be difficult to hear inside a home, Amtower said.

“The first thing is that they’ve got to have a way to receive the watch and warning, especially the warning,” Amtower said. “There’s a lot of people relying and depending on storm sirens and that is not the best way whatsoever.”

Amtower recommends using a weather radio, a Smart 911 app or other weather alert apps on their smartphones.

“If they have two – a primary and a backup – that is a well- prepared citizen,” he said.

Fast storm left Ozark residents out of safe room

The storm shelter at the Ozark Community Center doubles as a facility for martial arts. (Photo by Susan Wade)

There also are situations where a safe room isn’t open during a storm warning, such as on April 28 when a tornado warning was issued for Clever, Nixa, Ozark, Rogersville and other parts of Christian and Greene counties.

To the consternation of some citizens who expressed their frustration on social media, the shelter at the Ozark Community Center wasn’t opened. There wasn’t enough time, City Hall staffer said. Usually, the OC is opened when a tornado watch is issued, but a watch wasn’t issued by the National Weather Service because the storm escalated so quickly.

“Since there was no (tornado) watch and we thought we were just having general thunderstorms, it was hard to get people there to get those doors open,” Amtower explained.

Since the Sunday night storm, Ozark city officials have updated shelter procedures, including providing keys to more city employees. They’re also working on a solution to have a key on-site for the community to use during severe weather and exploring remote lock options.

Shelters in Christian County Built Using FEMA Criteria

  • Billings School  
  • Chadwick High School
  • Clever High School
  • Clever Elementary-Middle School
  • Highlandville Elementary
  • Inman Elementary in Nixa
  • Matthews Elementary in Nixa
  • Nixa Junior High School
  • Ozark Community Center
  • Ozarks Technical Community College, 3369 W. Jackson St. in Ozark
  • Sparta Preschool

Susan Wade

Susan Wade’s career includes nine years at the News-Leader in Springfield where she covered various topics, including Christian County, Greene County, higher education and many others. She has a bachelor’s degree in public relations and journalism and a master’s degree in communications from Missouri State University. She is a lifelong resident of southwest Missouri. Email her at More by Susan Wade