Brandi Hagen, Albert Lea Tribune –
LAKE MILLS, Iowa — The school board in Lake Mills hopes to build a safe room for the school in case of a direct hit from a tornado.
In January, the Lake Mills school board started the application process for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would help pay for the construction of the safe room.
According to Lake Mills Superintendent Daryl Sherman, the safe room grant program is relatively new, but many schools are taking the opportunity and applying. The process takes anywhere from two to four years.
The safe room would not just be for the school, but also for the community, especially those without basements.
Sherman said the school district is heading the project because it will benefit more than the city.
Currently, the closest safe rooms to Lake Mills in Iowa are in Mason City and Northwood.
Sherman said through several meetings, he has discovered there is public interest in going through with the project. Through those discussions, the project proposal includes using the safe-room space for a preschool, fitness center and a day care.
A preschool and fitness center were previously housed at Cummins Filtration, but because Cummins closed its doors and sent their jobs to Mexico, they have until December 2012 to relocate.
If a day care is included, it will be self-sufficient and pay rent for the space.
“The school is not going to be running the day care,” Sherman said. “We don’t want to be in the day care business. We are in the preschool business, though.”
By planning for an extended project and not just the safe room, Sherman said the facility would be used daily and not just on rare occasion of a tornado hitting Lake Mills.
It is estimated the space will be between 5,000 to 6,000 square feet and will be attached to the south side of the school. It will have 12-inch thick cement walls and roof and should withstand winds up to 250 mph.
The fitness center would be separate from the safe room and would not have the cement roof because based on calculations. the safe room would be enough space to fit the at-risk population. The reason it is included in the proposal is because it would be beneficial to the community to continue to have a fitness facility.
The Lake Mills City Council is working with the local police and fire departments to ensure the safe room will be unlocked and available to the community when necessary.
To build the basic structure of a safe room, FEMA will pay for 75 percent of the construction, the Department of Homeland Security will pay 10 percent and the remaining 15 percent will be left to the local district.
“Whatever contents you add to the interior, it’s similar to adding options to a car,” Sherman said. “It’s going to increase the price. That’s why we need community support on this.”
Sherman stresses it is a collaborative project between the school and the city.
“The options for the community will either be, this is what we’d like to see done and can it be supported,” Sherman said. “If not, the school will just build a basic safe room.”
He said conversations have been positive once people understand the scope and the reason for the new building. Sherman said other feedback the project has received has been that tornadoes don’t happen very often.
They’re right. But, tornadoes are probable and likely throughout the entire Midwest. According to Sherman, there hasn’t been any fatalities in the Lake Mills community from tornadoes, but he referenced one that happened in May 2008 in Parkersburg, Iowa.
“Those people said the same thing,” Sherman said. “That tornado took out half of the community.”
Sherman, originally from Parkersburg, visited his family just two days after the tornado went through.
“It became so real to me when I saw what a real storm could do,” Sherman said.
As it is, there is no basement in the Lake Mills Elementary School and students have to go into the hallways if a storm rises.
Sherman said from the damage he saw in Parkersburg, that is not sufficient.