The Ottumwa Courier

May 15, 2013

Kids to be protected by 10-ton slabs of cement

Courier staff writer

---- — ELDON — One tornado in the district was enough to convince school board members that children required further defense against bad weather.

"It was 12 years ago that a tornado struck our district [in Agency], killing two people," said Joel Pedersen, superintendent of the Cardinal school district.

If a tornado had struck Cardinal High School, students and staff could have gone to the basement; the locker rooms, for example, are underground and would provide protection from bad weather, Pedersen said. But the elementary school has nothing to act as a shield. Pedersen said he and other stakeholders in the community worried about the "what if" scenario.

This week, contractors began construction of the district's "saferoom." Les Shepherd, the Cardinal maintenance staffer helping to oversee the project, said a crane is lowering 20,000 pound panels into place. Cedar Valley Steel then sets the panels, which are a foot thick, into steel pieces, which are then welded to create a frame. Shepherd said there are 24 of those 10-ton panels. Once they form the walls, crews will lay forms and supports on top of them. They'll then pour a 10-inch thick concrete roof onto the room, making it one solid cube. There will be a generator inside, as well as a list of items required to be kept in the shelter. The general contractor, Bi-State Contracting, is known to Ottumwans as the builder of the new Liberty school on the south side.

"[This project] probably started in the fall of 2010," said the superintendent. "I found out there was some funding for schools for saferooms that would protect students and staff. It was a long process working with Homeland Security and FEMA. We became part of the Wapello County Hazard Mitigation Plan. In November of 2012, we were awarded $550,000. That’ll be about 50 percent of the cost."

The other half of the money for the project comes from Iowa's one-cent sales tax fund, which must be used to build or maintain schools.

"The real great thing about the safe room is that it will get used every day," Pedersen said.

Currently, the elementary school does not have a cafeteria. Kids use the gym for lunch; during lunchtime, no classes can take place there.

The contract says that the structure should be completed by November, but the crew is really moving fast, the superintendent said, estimating that it could be done as soon as September. From pre-school to fifth grade, there are about 350 students in the district's elementary building.

"Our location makes it make sense. And it’s important to the people in our district," Pedersen said.

Two Ottumwa residents visiting Agency were killed by an F2 tornado. Pedersen said he has been assured the new saferoom will protect children "in up to F5 winds."

To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark