Community center to be built 'like a bomb shelter'

By Sylvia Hall - bio | email

JACKSON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Denny Walker has vivid memories of being pushed out of her St. Andrews home by Katrina's waters, then having no where to escape.

"Once the water started seeping in, we ended up deciding to go ahead and go," said Walker.  "We climbed out the front window, and we progressively went from house to house, with the water coming up, and sometimes it was up to here."

And Walker wasn't the only one. Fountainbleu Fire Chief Michael Belton remembers rescuing plenty of his neighbors from the same area, which includes St. Andrews, Ocean Beach Estates, Pinehurst and Gulf Park Estates, among others. Belton's problem was that he had nowhere to take them.

"We had no space available," said Belton. "What we did was we would just stage them here in our old station or old community center, until the National Guard showed up."

No one involved hopes it ever happens again, but just in case, changes are on the way. The county is set to build the first of three new hurricane shelters. The shelter will serve as a community center, and take the place of the basketball courts that are currently beside the Fountainbleu Fire Department.

Plans for a new center were already in the works before Katrina, but after the storm, the county upgraded them. District 5 Supervisor John McKay said the new center will be built "like a bomb shelter." Officials believe the new center will better serve the communities just south of it, in the event of an emergency.

"If there was a hurricane shelter up by the Fountainbleu Fire Department, we would have ended up there," said Walker about her Katrina experience. "Instead of going house to house, we probably would have tried going up toward the shelter."

The new shelter will feature a full kitchen, showers, bathrooms and wind-resistant doorways.  The building will be built to withstand winds of up to 180 mph.

"While this is not a shelter that everybody's going to run to right off the bat, it's going to be a place for the people who waited too long during Katrina," said McKay. "Where the firemen had to go pull them out of their houses."

Officials say it will also be a better facility for incoming rescue workers. The building will be run on a generator and will have two sewer systems.

"What it would do, it would provide safety for the people," Belton said. "It would provide them with a comfortable place to stay, and we could care for them a lot better."

As for the current community, the fire department already has some hopes for how it will be used.

"We'd like to use it as a training facility for the county," said Belton. "We hold a lot of training in that building for the county."

Officials expect a groundbreaking within a month, and it should be ready for the 2010 hurricane season. The price tag is more than a million dollars, paid nearly equally by the county budget and federal money.

The county is also planning hurricane shelters in the Helena and St. Martin communities.

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