Storm shelters have come a long way in the past 20 years, and so has the technology to help first responders find them.
In the event of a tornado, like the one that struck Fort Smith and Van Buren in April 1996, a storm shelter can be covered with debris and no one may know it is occupied. The very thing that saves a person’s life could end up being their tomb. With geographic information systems, GIS for short, a family’s storm shelter can be pinpointed in a private database for first responders in a tornado’s destruction zone.
After more than a year of work, there are now 575 Crawford County storm shelters registered within the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District’s private database. The project has been done in cooperation with Crawford County Department of Emergency Management using a $21,000 grant from the state of Arkansas’ General Improvement Fund.
Residential areas of Van Buren in Crawford County were damaged in the 1996 tornado that also destroyed areas of downtown Fort Smith.
Shannon Scott, GIS technician with the regional Planning and Development District’s GIS Department, said there was some initial hesitance among those in rural areas of Crawford County about registering the location of their storm shelter. But it was an easier decision for them knowing the coordinates would be in a private database.
“Especially for the older population that was one of their concerns,” Scott said. “I think a lot of people, especially those who have them in the garage floor, use them as a safe and they don’t want anybody to know where they are at. So, all of that information is in-house.”
Scott and Tina Thompson, the development district’s GIS manager and 911 coordinator, will be able to load the storm shelter locations onto their GPS (global positioning satellite) units and be with emergency responders in the event of a destructive tornado to lead crews directly to storm shelters that might be under debris.
“We can download that data and go out where all landmarks are gone,” Scott added. “A lot of people don’t realize the devastation that occurs.”
Only residents of Crawford County were involved in this project. An exhibit explaining Scott and Thompson’s storm shelter mapping project earned a top award at the Arkansas GIS Users Symposium at Little Rock in October. Additional funding would be needed to do other counties in the region, Scott added.
The project is ongoing. In the past month, Scott has picked up about 20 more storm shelters to enter in the database. Some are gathered while she is out doing field work, and others are sent in by Dennis Gilstrap, director of Crawford County Department of Emergency Management. The bulk of the registrations came from outreach through public service announcements and letters based on storm shelter registry with the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
Most of the 575 storm shelters in the county are in rural areas, Scott points out.
The latest breakdown of Crawford County’s storm shelter registration numbers includes 27 in Alma, 19 in Cedarville, eight in Dyer, 17 in Kibler, two in Mountainburg, 11 in Mulberry, and 112 in Van Buren. There are no storm shelters at Chester or Rudy registered in the county’s GIS database.
Although the state of Arkansas also put up $1.25 million in 2015 to help people pay for their storm shelters, that money dried up within six months and any future funding is expected to be focused toward community and school safe rooms to protect large groups of people, according to Arkansas Department of Emergency Management Public Information Officer Whitney Green.
Gilstrap, whose HAM radio call sign is KD5SKA, was the battalion chief with the Van Buren Fire department when the 1996 tornado tore through his area.
“I have a lot of memories about the response and recovery of the tornado. I remember the afternoon before the tornado and worked for the first three days with short periods of rest,” Gilstrap said.