Marie Plunkett tried for six years to get federal assistance to install a storm shelter at her Phil Campbell home, but it wasn’t until after April 27, 2011’s deadly tornadoes that concrete plans began to unfold.
Plunkett, 65, said she first wanted a storm shelter to make sure her mother had a safe place to go in the event of a disaster. Her mother has since died, but Plunkett said 2011’s tornado left her trapped in her home for nearly a day and reinforced her desire for a shelter.
“When there’s federal money available, so much per year is allotted (for shelters), but then after the tornado, a lot of federal money became available,” Plunkett said.
By the end of October, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved 100 individual shelters for Franklin County with the promise that it would cover 75 percent of the cost of the shelter, as long as 75 percent of the cost did not exceed $4,000.
Yasamie August, an Alabama Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman, said the state EMA is administering the funds.
In addition to Franklin County’s 100 shelters, August said Marion County was approved for 97 individual shelters, Lauderdale County was approved for 116 shelters and Colbert County was approved for 12.
“We had enough funding to approve all the individual safe room applications that we received by the deadline, Oct. 27, 2011,” August said.
Statewide, FEMA has approved 2,522 individual shelters and received 4,464 applications for shelter assistance.
Roy Gober, Franklin County EMA director, said almost immediately after the storm, Franklin County hosted meetings for those interested in receiving help to install a shelter. That way, he said, the county would be one of the first in line “with their hands out” when funding became available.
“Probably the second or third day after the storm, people were coming up to me and asking about assistance with getting a shelter,” Gober said. “They had the fear of God in them. I could not tell those people no, so I asked them to let me have their name and phone number and I told them, ‘As soon as a program opens up, I’ll put you on the (application) list.’
“I’ve been in the (EMA) program a long time, and I know that as soon as a disaster happens, (FEMA) opens up hazard mitigation money for storm shelters.”
Hundreds of people expressed interest and were asked to attend several informational meetings, Gober said, but some choose not to wait for federal assistance and took on the total cost of shelters themselves. Others didn’t meet the necessary criteria to qualify for aid.
“The first (shelter) was applied for in July and it was November before (FEMA) awarded the first reimbursement,” Gober said. “Some counties waited until October to apply.”
Plunkett said her $4,500 shelter was installed at the end of June, and she was told her reimbursement check would be mailed within four to six weeks.
The criteria for applying for FEMA reimbursement includes being a homeowner and being able to pay a contractor up front for the total cost of the shelter, Plunkett said.
“You had to take two pictures of where you planned to place the shelter, then contact a contractor you wanted to use,” she said. “You had to get a copy of the engineer’s blueprints and their license and all of that was sent in to FEMA.”
Plunkett said she chose to have an in-ground shelter built, because she didn’t have a bank or a hill to support an above-ground shelter.
The contractor dug a hole measuring 6 feet 8 inches deep and encircled it with a steel frame, Plunkett said. After that, cement was poured around the frame and on the floor, and then a round, cement top, outfitted with two industrial-sized springs, was used as the shelter’s roof.
“The shelter has two air vents in it and steps ... with two hand holds on each side and one at the door to help steady you,” Plunkett said.
Of the approved shelters in Franklin County, Gober said so far 70 have been constructed and reimbursements have come through for 68.
“We’ve had as many as 10 or 12 people waiting to be reimbursed at one time,” Gober said. “Basically it takes 30-45 days to get that reimbursement back, and it comes to us at the EMA office. If I’m getting reimbursed for 10 shelters at one time, all of the money comes in one check, then the county deposits it and makes out individual checks to homeowners.”
August said at this time, all money provided by Hazard Mitigation Funding after the April 2011 tornadoes has been allocated to shelters.
“Without a federally-declared disaster, we cannot request more hazard mitigation funding,” she said.
For Plunkett, however, a six-year struggle has come to a close.
“I just kept calling Mr. Gober and telling him I needed a shelter,” she said. “After the tornado, I kept going to all the meetings. Then it was done in two days.”
Hannah Mask can be reached at 256-740-5728 or hannah.mask@TimesDaily.com.