FORREST COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - Forrest County is building 12 storm safe rooms at area schools after receiving a grant through FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
"That is a resource that we don't have at this time, and this grant will allow us to have one of the safe buildings at each of the schools in the Forrest County School District," said Mike Papas, director of auxiliary services Forrest County School District. "A complete separate building on each campus. It's just a safety measure we don't have presently."
Petal Superintendent Matt Dillon said safe rooms are also being built at each of the five schools in his district.
"This will be another safety net," Dillon said. "It provides another layer of protection."
Forrest County Board of Supervisors President David Hogan said there is an estimated $12 million construction budget for buildings, with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) covering 90 percent of the project cost, and the school districts funding the other 10 percent.
"$10 million federal grant received to build safe rooms in the area schools, both out in the county and the cities of Hattiesburg and Petal," Hogan said. "The Forrest County Board of Supervisors is proud to be a part of that endeavor to make safe spaces for our children while they are in school."
Papas said the grant is the only way this project is possible for the Forrest County School District.
"We would not have had the money to put these facilities at each of the campuses," Papas said. "The safety of the kids is A-Number one, and to be able to put them in a facility that's going to allow that (safety) to take place up to the weather standards of whatever's presented, yes. It's well worth it."
Hogan said the buildings will be designed and built to withstand winds up to 250 mph, meeting FEMA's guidelines for P-361 safe rooms for tornadoes and hurricanes.
"Hopefully, when we get a severe weather threat, parents will not have to worry about racing to the school in bad weather to get their child, and their child will be in a safe environment until the bad weather passes," Hogan said.
While Papas is not sure safe rooms will replace early dismissal, he does agree they provide the district with an improved safety plan.
"We haven't worked out the details on that yet, but I don't foresee it taking the place of allowing school to exit early," he said. "That's going to be based on a larger weather condition. This is more of a thunder storm, tornado activity that just occurs at the spur of the moment, and to be able to place our students in a safe facility rather than into a hallway, which is not always the safest. It's the safest, but it's not the safest now that we have the safe rooms."
The safe rooms will be built big enough to house every student in the school plus faculty and staff.
"The size of the building was set to the enrollment of the school with some additional students (estimated) for growth in the future, so each safe room at the school will be able to house each student and faculty member at that school," Papas said.
Dillon said building square footage was estimated using one student for every five square feet.
Hogan listed the size for each of the six schools in the Forrest County School District plus Forrest County Agricultural High School:
- Dixie Attendance Center: 5,000 sq. feet
- Earl Travillion Attendance Center: 2,690 sq. feet
- Forrest County Agricultural High School: 5,000 sq. feet
- North Forrest Elementary: 2,571 sq. feet
- North Forrest High School 2,890 sq. feet
- South Forrest Attendance Center: 4,674 sq. feet
- Rawls Springs Attendance Center 1,748 sq. feet
Dillon and Papas said they can use the shelters as multipurpose rooms when they are not needed for their official use.
"At a couple of schools, we've talked about using it as a P.E. room, music room," Papas. "We can use the buildings any way we wanted. We just cannot put anything permanent in it. We have to be able to have it open at any moment for the safety of the students depending on the weather conditions that present itself."
Papas said plans are already being drawn up for construction, and he hopes work can begin by spring.
"A lot of the preliminary work is being done right now – the topography, the landscaping as far as the water, the soil content and how they're going to place the buildings- all the preliminary things," Papas said. "We're looking at possibly around spring break getting it started, and it'll take up to a year, year and a half, to get each of the buildings taken care of."