An agreement under negotiation would allow the city to use Decatur's two new high schools as public storm shelters when they are available and a tornado watch is issued for Morgan County.
Dwight Satterfield, deputy superintendent of school safety and student services for Decatur City Schools, said he has met with city leaders and emergency management officials about a memorandum of understanding that would set guidelines for when the schools can serve as public storm shelters.
“Nothing we do will interfere with school activities,” Satterfield said.
Decatur currently has about 55,000 residents and only two public storms shelters — one at the courthouse and the basement at City Hall. Their combined capacity is about 500.
Satterfield said the city approached him in May about using the schools as public storm shelters when inclement weather approaches the Tennessee Valley.
“We’re thrilled that Decatur City Schools is willing to consider this,” said Mayor Tab Bowling, who has attended most of the meetings about using the high schools.
The new Austin and Decatur high schools have storm shelters designed to withstand 250 mph wins. The shelters are integrated with the school, some doubling as classrooms, halls and corridors.
Satterfield said he traveled to Hartselle High and to a school in Tuscaloosa that double as storm shelters to “see how they do things.” He said DCS has “a lot of details” to work out before finalizing an agreement with the city.
Board members Karen Duke and Donnie Lane supported the idea, but quizzed Satterfield during a board meeting this week about who would be responsible for opening and closing the schools as shelters.
Satterfield said the initial plan is for Decatur police to designate someone in the department to have keys and pass codes to enter the school. He said he will serve as liaison between DCS and the city and they cannot open a school to the public as a shelter without permission from school officials first.
“We’re going to make sure nothing school-related is happening,” Satterfield said, adding that the district also wants to avoid a situation where students may be dismissing and people are rushing to the school to take shelter.
Morgan County Emergency Management Agency Director Eddie Hicks supports the plan. He said residents are generally waiting to get in the basement shelter at the courthouse when the threat of inclement weather is announced.
Three years after eight students died when a tornado hit Enterprise High School in 2007, the Alabama Building Commission started requiring “mandatory safe spaces” in new K-12 public schools.
Since the new law, Hartselle City, Morgan County, Athens City and Lawrence County have built new high schools or other facilities with storm shelters the school districts make available to the public if a tornado watch is issued.
Although not required, Morgan County also included a storm shelter in the new athletic complex at West Morgan that opens to the public during inclement weather.
Lawrence County and Morgan County used FEMA money to help construct storms shelters in their new facilities, which means they are governed by federal guidelines as to when their facilities are open to the public.
As required by law, the shelters at Austin and Decatur are within five minutes of every student if school is in session and large enough to house every student.
Satterfield said the plan right now is to make enough space available in each school for about 400 residents, but that neither school would serve as a FEMA relocation shelter.
“We’re not going to use every section of the school as a public shelter,” he said.
Superintendent Michael Douglas said the school board would have to approve the final agreement between DCS and the City Council.