Ethical, Legal Tips For Helping Others During Oklahoma Storm Season

Friday, April 25th 2014, 8:37 am
By: News 9

Many Oklahomans have spent thousands of dollars installing storm shelters to stay safe during tornadoes. But what do you do if someone runs to your property during a storm, asking you to keep them safe?

It's something you may not have thought about. But it could bring moral and legal implications. Experts in this matter say now is the time to figure all this out.

News 9 received an e-mail from a very concerned mother heading into this weekend's severe weather. The e-mail came from a woman named Jaime. She writes:

"I put in a 6 person shelter when I bought my house. Last year, I had 13 people and 2 dogs in it. I don't mind helping anybody that needs it, but our "guests" wanted to wait until the last minute to get in. It really angered me that these people would potentially put my son's life at risk, just so they could watch the sky until the last minute. I don't want to lock anyone out when the sirens are going off but I bought it to protect my son, not the neighborhood. How should I handle this?"

We took that question to some experts who handle this matter.

If you own a shelter, the best thing you can do is have a conversation today with your neighbors, friends or family. It's going to be up to you to lay out some ground rules now about your shelter's capacity when others need to be inside, and let them know now if pets are allowed.

We know it's a tough call to make ethically and morally. But legally, attorneys say storm shelter owners are not obligated to provide shelter to anyone. However, you do need to make sure the shelter itself is safe.

"You need to make sure that you take the necessary steps to make sure the shelter is in good working order, they are not flooded or infested by snakes or something like that. You need to take every step to make sure anyone who comes on to your property is going to be safe," Attorney David Slane said.

Emergency managers say timing is the key for some of those last minute decisions. In fact, they say the actual tornado isn't the biggest threat.

Emergency managers in Oklahoma say if you have a shelter, there's a good chance some of your neighbors, or even a stranger, may show up and ask to get in. The worst time for this to happen is when the storm or tornado is coming around the corner.

Timing is key here, because it's flying debris, not the tornado that's the real threat.

"You can be two or three miles away and a 2x4 hit you or something like that. We want to keep people safe and they need to have their own plan on how to shelter in place," said Albert Ashwood with the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

Very few communities still have a public shelter, so it's critical you have a plan in place. We checked with attorneys and they say shelter owners have no legal obligation to provide shelter to others. But if you do, there could be some liability issues with the safety of the shelter.