Republicans and Democrats Agree: Tornado Shelters Are Worth Subsidizing

  • Logan Layden
Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Tom Cole

Republicanconference / Flickr

Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Tom Cole

A bit of rare bipartisanship in Washington could make individuals safer when tornadoes threaten.

Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican, and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, both introduced versions of the Tornado Family Safety Act on Aug. 2.

This is reminiscent of what happened following another round of deadly tornadoes in 1999. StateImpact has reported on how, prior to that, FEMA’s post-disaster grants couldn’t be used to build safe rooms. You could put hurricane straps on your house, or build a wall to divert flood waters, but safe rooms weren’t an approved use of the money.

That changed after President Bill Clinton toured the devastation and immediately declared safe rooms eligible for FEMA money.

It took 14 years, but the Small Business Administration might be about to follow suit.

Disaster victims can also qualify for low-interest loans through the SBA. That money can be used to build retaining walls and sea walls, grade landscapes to prevent floods, and to move buildings out of harms way.

Building safe rooms isn’t on the list — for now.

A press release from Cole’s office says his bill would allow part of the loan to be used for the construction of safe rooms for the first time:

“No one could expect the monstrous storm that tore through my hometown on May 20, but as we rebuild, it makes sense to construct homes that are prepared to face future disasters. This legislation will enable tornado victims to use SBA mitigation loans to construct safe rooms, as they rebuild the homes they lost.”

Cole says the more help that can be made available, the better:

The bill would allow a backstop to impacted families in the event that other federal funds are not available for tornado safe rooms after disasters.

The availability of federal money is tied to the number and severity of disasters in a given state, and has been running low in Oklahoma recently. More than 10,000 safe rooms were built in Oklahoma with federal money in the years after the 1999 storms.

The last couple of years, however, have seen that money dry to a trickle, and the state has been forced to hold lotteries to determine who gets a shelter.