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Public Storm Shelter Bill Stirs Controversy In Oklahoma

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

A new bill that would encourage opening public places as shelters in the event of severe weather causes controversy. While the bill introduced by State Senator Ron Justice is new, the message from critics has been around for more than a year.

"It's just to protect those people that may not have had an opportunity to build a shelter yet or have not access to a shelter," said Justice.

Justice has heard from his constituents that they are afraid to open up churches, businesses and other buildings as shelters because of liability issues. His bill essentially throws out that concern, removing liability from those who operate a shelter during emergency situations.

Experts in emergency management, however, came out a year ago against such a move. They said they fear too many people will try to travel to a shelter just ahead of a major storm event, such as a tornado.

"The key word is travel," said Director of Oklahoma County Emergency Management David Barnes. "That causes traffic considerations, it causes people to be exposed to severe weather in their vehicles, which we've seen on countless occasions where cars and trucks are wadded up like tin cans."

Barnes explained that most Oklahomans have become apathetic to severe weather because of advances in the warning systems. His fear is that too many people would wait until it's too late to make a move to a public shelter and get caught in the storm. He said they already see some people that get caught in this situation.

"People went to shelter locations that were overcrowded and they simply piled up in the parking lot in their cars and waited it out, which is not a good thing to do. It's not a good place to be," said Barnes.

He also pointed out that many places that could be used as shelters are actually not as safe as a house. There are FEMA standards that designate what a shelter is and therefore many of the buildings opened up as shelters could be prone to tornado damage.

Barnes said, "Opening any business, any school, or just any building somewhere does not cause you to be in a better location than you would be in your home, with the exception of mobile homes. Without fail, we still see that small interior room or closet on the lowest level as being the area that remains intact the most often."

Senator Justice acknowledged the validity of the concerns with the bill. He said he does not want people to make last-minute decisions to travel to the shelters. Instead, he hopes only those who do not have access to proper shelters will seek cover in these places. But he said without the bill he does not think those shelters would open.

"People were afraid to open because they might be liable for somebody getting hurt or injured during those times and this just sets their mind at ease."

Emergency managers praised that aspect of the bill.

Justice also said the shelters would be beneficial beyond tornados. His hope was that this bill would open more shelters during wildfires, floods and blizzards as well.

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