Avoyelles Police Jury to build $1M tornado shelter

FEMA-funded project could also house criminal courtroom

Providing a safe haven to ride out a storm could also help resolve the parish's crowded courtroom situation, the Avoyelles Parish Police Jury hopes.

Jurors were recently told that federal funds for a "safe room" have been allocated and the parish can moved forward with the $1 million project. The Avoyelles Police Jury will have to put up about $25,000 in local funds.

Advertising for bids from interested contractors has begun, now that a FEMA-funded "safe room" project has been approved.

The building, to be constructed on jury-owned property near the courthouse, has been "approved but unfunded" for several years, Jury President Kirby Roy said. The parish got word last week that the federal grant has been funded.

The purpose is to provide a tornado-proof structure in downtown Marksville capable of providing a short-term refuge for residents and workers in the immediate vicinity.

"This will be a 4,266 sq.ft. building capable of withstanding 250 mph winds," Parish Engineer Ron Bordelon said. "At least 2,900 square feet of the building must be able to provide shelter to up to 573 people within about a five mile radius of the structure."

It is possible that the noon whistle that tells Marksville it's lunch time could be used to alert citizens within the shelter zone when a tornado has been sighted.

"I would expect anyone within that five mile circle would high-tail it to the shelter when a tornado is reported near Marksville," Bordelon said.

Since tornadoes are fortunately not a common occurrence, FEMA allows the "safe room" to be used for any other purpose the Police Jury may wish -- on condition that none of those uses can prevent the temporary sheltering of almost 600 residents fleeing the wrath of a twister.

"I am hoping we can hold criminal court in that building," Roy said.

If that can happen, it would open up one of the current courtrooms for a third judge, should the State Supreme Court recommend one and the Legislature approve it for the parish.

It would also raise the very real possibility the courthouse could regain use of its main front and rear entrances, rather than funneling everyone through what was once primarily the door used to bring inmates in and out of the courthouse for court appearances and trials.

The Police Jury was instructed a few years ago to reduce the many entrances to the 93-year-old courthouse to one due to security concerns.

Bordelon said the building is not designed to be a long-term evacuation center, but it could be pressed into service for that purpose if needed. The number of hurricane evacuees would be significantly fewer than those seeking a short sanctuary from a cyclone.

"This project originally came out FEMA's Katrina-Rita disaster recovery programs," Bordelon said. "The initial proposal was to 'harden' the courthouse so it could be used as a disaster shelter. It would have included putting up hurricane louvered windows. It would have basically put a hard shell around the courthouse."

When engineers got a little further into the project, they realized the courthouse is a historic building and the proposed plans would have compromised the historical aspects of the structure. FEMA set the Marksville project on a shelf before coming back to the Police Jury a few years ago with an offer to redirect the "hardening" of the courthouse to a stand-alone storm shelter, for about the same amount of money.

The "safe room" will also house the Office of Emergency Preparedness, allowing the Parish Permit Office to move from the second floor to the first floor of the courthouse. It has been proposed that the Veterans Affairs Office would move to the Permit Office in that event.

AVOYELLES JOURNAL
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MARKSVILLE WEEKLY

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Marksville, LA 71351
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