Wyatt Emmerich Guest Columnist 5/2/2014

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 2, 2014

Post-Katrina-built storm shelters again questioned

As the recent tragic storms have once again proven, April and May are tornado season in Mississippi. Mississippi has the fifth most tornadoes in the nation and is number one in tornado deaths with an average of 10 fatalities per year. The Mississippi coast also gets its fair share of hurricanes.

So when Mississippi got a ton of federal Katrina money, building 60 storm shelters for about $240 million was an easy sell.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided the money. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) did the paperwork. And Mississippi counties filled out the applications. The counties also had to kick in five percent of the cost.

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In 2011, when the shelters were built, I wrote a column questioning the cost-benefit of these shelters. The shelters can house 41,000 people for 36 hours. A hurricane like Katrina occurs once every generation. That comes to about $6,000 per night.

We have thousands of motels, school gyms, churches and other facilities that could be used in the rare case of a mass evacuation. Not to mention homes of relatives and friends, who would be happy to shelter their kinfolk in an emergency.

The $240 million seemed to me to be a huge waste.

One of the shelters was built in Pike County, near McComb. The 10,000-square-foot building cost $3.6 million and can house 900 people for 36 hours.

Recalling a federal law requiring federal projects to submit a cost-benefit analysis, I asked MEMA officials to show me the analysis.

Sure enough, Pike County officials, as part of their application, had submitted a cost-benefit analysis using FEMA software with the assistance of MEMA.

To justify the $3.6 million, officials assumed that every time there was a severe thunderstorm in Pike County, 900 people would rush to the shelter.

With a dozen or so severe storms a year, nearly 10,000 were supposed to use the shelter every year. The cost-benefit analysis then looked at what percentage of those 10,000 might be injured by a tornado and how much their injuries would cost in terms of lost pay and medical cost. That’s how they justified spending $3.6 million.

When I wrote the column, I argued there was no way the shelters would be full every time a storm came through Pike County. Nobody knows where a tornado will touch down. Only in a rare case will it touch down on your house. People aren’t that cautious.

By the time you actually see a tornado, it’s too late, unless you can get to your car. If you can get to your car, you don’t need to go to a shelter. Simply drive away from the tornado.

The MEMA officials disputed my thinking and wrote a long letter to the editor basically saying I didn’t know what I was writing about. Since the shelters were brand new, there was no way either side could prove their case.

I made a mental note to wait a few years and revisit this issue.

Well, three years have passed. (My how time flies!) I asked my friend and associate Ernest Herndon, outdoor editor of the McComb Enterprise-Journal, to find out if the shelter was being used. Here is what Ernest e-mailed me:

“I spoke with Pike County Civil Defense Director Richard Coghlan this morning. Here is what he said:
It’s not feasible to open the shelter for tornadoes or thunderstorms because of the short length of the warnings, which are usually less than 20 minutes.

It could be opened to shelter people whose neighborhoods were significantly damaged in the aftermath, but that hasn’t happened. The shelter is mainly designed for hurricanes. It’s only opened after other shelters, e.g. churches, are full.

The idea is to prevent people having to shelter in their cars, and to guarantee the county has a shelter even if the private shelters (e.g. churches) close, as some did after Katrina.

The Pike County building has been used as a shelter once since it opened in April 2012. That was for Hurricane Isaac. It housed 75 people, of whom 54 were local, the rest from out of state.
The county also rents the shelter for private functions such as reunions, weddings and such. The county charges expenses only, cannot make a profit. Using it like that helps “exercise” the building, running its systems so it doesn’t get mold, dirt daubers, etc.

So in three years, 75 people have used the shelter for one night. At that rate, the shelter costs $3,600 per person for a one-night stay, not including interest. For that much money, you could fly the whole family to Disney World for the weekend.

I tried to track down the MEMA officials who so disputed my analysis three years ago. Both have moved on to other jobs.

I did talk to Greg Flynn, the current MEMA external affairs guy.

“It’s encouraging that the counties should make sure the shelters are being used. We get frustrated that they aren’t being utilized during severe weather events,” Flynn said.

I asked Flynn what the occupancy rate of the shelters has been throughout the state. He said MEMA doesn’t track those figures.

I called the manager of the Lamar County shelter. Same story. Nobody uses it for severe weather. They did get a few people during Isaac and 38 people used it after the bad tornado in Hattiesburg a few years back. “It’s a post-storm shelter,” the manager told me.

In summary, our federal, state and local governments, working together, spent $240 million dollars to build 60 very expensive, fortified buildings that are now being used to host social receptions.

The cost-benefit analyses used to justify these expenditures were based on completely erroneous assumptions. If not fraudulent, they were close to it. In any case, the cost-benefit analyses weren’t worth the paper on which they were printed.

A slight bit of research could have determined that people don’t use shelters in advance of severe thunderstorms. No private company would ever invest $240 million without doing such research.

If you want to understand how our federal government somehow amassed $16 trillion in debt with no idea of how to pay it off, look no further than the Pike County storm shelter.

(Wyatt Emmerich is publisher of The Northside Sun and president of Emmerich Newspapers.)