Sometimes, FEMA Gets There Before Disaster Most people know the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the work it does after a disaster hits. But a tiny town in the rural Ozarks region of southern Missouri is seeing the other side of FEMA — the side that provides assistance before disaster strikes.
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Sometimes, FEMA Gets There Before Disaster

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Sometimes, FEMA Gets There Before Disaster

Sometimes, FEMA Gets There Before Disaster

Sometimes, FEMA Gets There Before Disaster

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Niangua's new tornado shelter holds up to 400 people — more than the town's entire population. Jennifer Moore for NPR hide caption

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Jennifer Moore for NPR

Niangua's new tornado shelter holds up to 400 people — more than the town's entire population.

Jennifer Moore for NPR

Most people know the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the work it does after a disaster strikes. But a tiny town in the rural Ozarks region of southern Missouri is seeing the other side of FEMA — the side that provides assistance before a disaster hits.

As black-and-white Holstein cows graze in a nearby field, dozens of schoolchildren in the town of Niangua, Mo., are gathering to watch builders erect a storm shelter next to their school.

The shelter walls are already built — they're cement and 12 feet high, forming a perfect circle. The unfinished roof is made of a vinyl material, and crews are getting ready to pump air into the shelter, inflating the roof into a dome shape.

Builders will then shoot 4 inches of concrete on the inside of the roof and reinforce it with steel bars, making it virtually tornado-proof.

"They've really put this thing together in just the past six months," says Linda Watts, who works for the local emergency management office. She applied for the FEMA grant that covered 90 percent of the construction costs. Watts says this is the first time this construction crew has built a monolithic dome shelter using FEMA grant money.

The new shelter will hold up to 400 people — more than the entire population of Niangua. Over the past couple of years, the impoverished town has been hit with no fewer than eight natural disasters, including a tornado a year ago that killed a resident.

Elbert Cannon remembers that twister well. He was on his farm tractor when he saw it approaching. "And I barely, barely got to my house by the time it hit," Cannon recalls. "The old house was crackin' and a-poppin', and it took part of the roof off and of course blew the windows out, and the house was in, probably five seconds, just exploding."

The grant program is part of FEMA's predisaster mitigation efforts, which aim to lessen a disaster's impact by providing aid before a disaster hits. A spokesman for FEMA's mitigation department, Butch Kinerney, says the grants fund the construction of shelters like the one in Niangua.

"They're often times in places that are more rural, where you don't have schools which have been constructed to withstand tornadic winds. You'll see them outside mobile home parks and those kinds of places," Kinerney says.

Experts in disaster management say the effort makes sense, but Bill Waugh, who teaches disaster management at Georgia State University, says FEMA has underfunded its disaster prevention programs over the past decade.

Waugh says all eyes are on the Obama administration, which he hopes will restore FEMA's budget for predisaster mitigation.

"Currently, the people they're hearing from certainly are veterans from that era," Waugh says. "But they are also professional emergency managers, who tend to be focused on the mitigation phase."

And if that does become more of a priority, it could lead to hundreds more disaster shelters like Niangua's going up in communities nationwide.

Jennifer Moore reports for member station KSMU.