Adams County Safe Room: Officials say facility not meant to be long-term shelter

Published 12:54 am Sunday, January 21, 2018


NATCHEZ — The purpose of the Adams County Safe Room on Liberty Road is right in the building’s name — to keep residents safe during times of emergency.

But that service is not absolute for a number of reasons.

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“People just have to understand what the building was designed to do,” Adams County Emergency Management Director Robert Bradford said.

The convoluted circumstances surrounding the $3.4 million safe room — which opened just more than 2 years ago — has spurred some confusion in recent weeks even amongst officials amid freezing low temperatures.

Adams County supervisors as well as some Natchez aldermen wondered how the freeze did not constitute an emergency of which the 10,000 square-foot building could take in the homeless.

But in many cases, opening the safe room as a shelter requires traversing some red tape, mainly due to the federal funding used to construct the facility.

The main purpose of the safe room is to offer safety in the event of a tornado. In turn, the building can be opened to the public for up to 24 hours, but no longer.

In these terms, the primary usage of the building occurs during tornado watches and warnings.

So, does the building get adequate use for those purposes?

“No, because we don’t have too many tornadoes around here,” District 5 Supervisor and Board of Supervisors President Calvin Butler said.

The building was opened due to a tornado watch or warning five days in 2017, and they all occurred prior to May. Of these instances, the last occurred on April 30, when an EF2 tornado struck the Cloverdale area.

The longest duration from that list occurred on March 29 and lasted approximately 17 1/2 hours.

During watches, people with inadequate shelter are encouraged to make their way to the shelter. Bradford said people are not encouraged to travel during a warning.

“If you’re in a warning, that’s kind of too late,” Bradford said.

When those stipulations are not met, the facility cannot accommodate anyone for sheltering purposes without assuming liability.

“You can be a good Samaritan and somehow you turn around and people want to sue you,” Bradford said.

The fix for that is a declaration of emergency by the Adams County Supervisors, which is exactly what occurred to temporarily open the safe room as a shelter last week.

Butler said this past week is an example of how the supervisors can choose to use the building when necessary.

“I think in the situations like we’ve had with the winter weather that we need to determine a declaration and open it up more for the homeless (to use as) a shelter,” Butler said.

The same occurred following the devastating Crosby flood of August 2016, when the Red Cross temporarily took over the building as a shelter for victims.

Bradford added that the purpose of the building is proactive, since the volatile nature of weather could make the building essential in the blink of an eye.

But while safety is the overt purpose of the safe room — built to withstand 250 mph winds and hold upwards of 700 people — the building gets more use from social events. For a small fee, the building is rented out often for such occasions. Bradford also said Emergency Management as well as other city and county departments use the building for training purposes.

“It’s being utilized,” Bradford said. “It ain’t just sitting here going to waste.”

He added that the county cannot make a profit off the building, and revenue from renting out the facility goes toward utility expenses.

Officials said they have heard complaints that the building is a waste of money or unnecessary given the building’s usage, but they justify it with the means of funding.

Of the facility’s total cost, $3.2 million came from a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant, while the county covered the remainder of approximately $200,000 mostly through in-kind services.

Adams County Administrator Joe Murray said counties all over the state utilized grant money to construct FEMA 361 safe rooms, which came mainly in response to Hurricane Katrina.

“A lot of people say ‘the safe room is a waste of money,’ but that money was just sitting there,” Murray said.

But despite the recent confusion surrounding the building and opinions on its usefulness or adequacy as a shelter, Bradford is thoroughly convinced that this county needs a permanent shelter.

Bradford said the safe room, while he defends its practicality for its intended purpose, cannot be suitable as a shelter because of the nature of the building.

“When you open up a shelter, there’s a lot of things that you have to do. You’ve got to make sure those people are cared for,” Bradford said. “Medicine — you’ve got to have a nurse, because if you get someone in there with diabetes … and that person has a reaction and I don’t know what’s going on and I’m not equipped to handle that, that’s a liability.”

Bradford also listed a lack of showers and improper kitchenware as reasons the safe room is not optimal for providing shelter at all times.

While he thanked volunteer firefighters and other local humanitarians for helping with the safe room as well as area churches for opening their doors during the freeze, last week’s events served as a catalyst to establish a permanent shelter.

Bradford has begun to form a committee to take on the project, and he hopes to get a diverse group of approximately 20 people to include elected officials, local professionals from various fields and everyday citizens.

District 4 Supervisor Ricky Gray said the shelter is something the area has needed for more than a decade.

“It can happen to anybody — you can be up one day and in a shelter the next,” Gray said.

Butler said he supported a new shelter so long as the county utilizes a facility that has already been built.

As for the safe room, though Gray conceded he is not privy to all the stipulations surrounding the facility, he still believes more could be done to make the building more robust when accepting those in need.

“I really don’t think it’s too late … since you already have the plumbing in place, just take some of those features over there and turn maybe two of them into a shower,” Gray said.

The safe room last received improvements in early 2017, when televisions, a public announcement system and WiFi Internet access were installed via Entergy donations.