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Should My School or Church Become a Tornado Shelter?

When a school or church decides to become a local tornado shelter, it can present several insurance risks that may not be obvious. These risks typically involve liability and property concerns, but administrators may face facility maintenance and personal safety concerns. Risks abound when trying to do good for your community. 

Large storm brewing over a midwest subdivision.
While it's the kind, civic choice to turn a church into a tornado shelter, there's also a lot of related insurance issues.

At the Loomis Insurance Agency, we understand these issues. Many of our clients are active in their community and desire to be a resource for others. We support that but want to ensure people go forward with eyes wide open. We've compiled a list of some possible concerns that administrators may want to consider before allowing their buildings to become local tornado shelters. 

During a Tornado Event, You are Responsible for Visitor Safety

When a school or church acts as a tornado shelter, it welcomes community members into its buildings during emergencies. However, the organization must ensure the safety of these individuals while they are on its premises. The school or church can face liability claims for injuries or accidents even though they provide shelter during a tornado.

For instance, if a tornado hits a building and causes injuries to people inside the facility, the facility owners can face lawsuits if the facility does not fully withstand the force of the tornado for which it’s designed. The issue is the standard of care the facility is held to during an emergency. Schools may face a higher standard than other facilities, like churches, simply because they are already considered public facilities. 

The school or church will need a thorough structural review regularly. Architects design tornado shelters to withstand high winds and flying debris associated with tornadoes. Shelters are built to specific safety standards to provide a secure environment during severe weather events. The organization needs to do everything possible to ensure the facility can withstand the severity of tornadoes it was originally designed for. 

You will want to invite your insurance company to be part of those regular reviews. If the school sustains damage due to the tornado, questions may arise about the adequacy of its insurance coverage.

People praying around a Bible.

Can Your Facility Provide Long-Term Shelter? 

Tornado shelters are more than just short-term facilities. They can be used for days, weeks, or even months after the event as survivors search for new places to live. This "extended use" can pose unique problems for heating, equipment, and infrastructure. Administrators may need to host survivors while also holding classes or events. An extended stay may also contribute to wear and tear on the facility that administrators didn't expect. 

Considering questions about your facility's extended use is where your organization's policies and plans come into play. Your policies and plans should be robust enough to guide your group on what happens when a temporary tornado facility becomes a long-term shelter. Are there contracts in place where other agencies would provide aid? Could your school or church tap into public funds to help fund the shelter? How will your facility continue to function as a church or school while also being used as a shelter? 

These questions are vital to answer before an emergency, partly to protect anyone using the facility and partly to keep your facility insured. Many insurance companies will only insure a facility that doubles as a tornado shelter if the organization has solid plans and procedures for a long-term emergency. An excellent place to start planning is with FEMA's guidelines for Safe Room Construction.

Have You Considered the Legal and Financial Requirements of Hosting a Tornado Shelter? 

Legally, there are local, state, and federal laws related to hosting gatherings, emergency management, and safety standards. Depending on your location, these can be a significant hurdle to overcome. Or not. Local and state agencies may help handle most of the red tape when converting to a tornado shelter. However, if they won't or can't, then that burden falls on you. 

Financially, schools can't rely on FEMA money to build tornado shelters. FEMA can contribute some funds to construction, but those often come with strings that might be too cumbersome or don’t fully foot the bill. If that’s the case, the local facility may have to fund the project themselves. 

Case Study: Wichita School District

Wichita School District Logo

The Wichita School District in Wichita, Kansas, did just that. In 2008, they asked their community to support a bond to build tornado shelters in every school in their district. They became the first large school district in the United States to have a FEMA Safe Room in every building. They accomplished this with local dollars in funding and local and FEMA expertise in leading the construction. 

Architects designed the Wichita School District's shelters to be large enough to protect all students and withstand tornadoes up to an EF5, the most dangerous type of tornado with wind speeds of up to 318 miles per hour. 

Case Study: The Edmond Public School System in Oklahoma

In Oklahoma, the Edmond Public School system also worked to ensure a safe room in each school. They showed that using local dollars does not mean speed is on their side.

"The movement to build safe rooms in Edmond schools began in 1990," said Dr. David Goin, Edmond Schools superintendent. They didn't finish until 2013. They also built their facilities with local dollars. 

For Tornado Shelters, Partner with Your Insurance Agent

Property owners should work closely with their insurance agency annually to assess their insurance needs, secure appropriate coverage, and implement risk management measures to protect their tornado shelters and minimize potential losses. 

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company provides specific coverage for shelters and Disaster Relief with its Relief Activity Coverage endorsement that is an extension of coverage for:

  • Medical Expenses for injured volunteers

  • Damage to equipment and tools owned by employees or volunteers

  • Liability claims against the ministry and its volunteers for both emotional and financial damages

(M419, BMIC Coverage Overview, 2019)

Each company has unique coverage options; your agency personnel could research options for you.

Even if a school or church can be converted into a tornado shelter, it won't be able to maintain it without proper insurance coverage. Your insurance agency will be able to craft the right coverage and ensure that you have the correct supporting procedures and policies in place if your tornado shelter is ever used. It can then ensure that you maintain adequate coverage while maintaining the facility over time.

The Loomis Insurance Agency can help you navigate the challenges of hosting a local tornado shelter. The financial, legal, and building challenges are serious; however, they can help ensure that your school or church maintains the right coverage to keep your shelter as a community asset. 



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