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Published: Tuesday, 4/24/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

3 officials shun hearing on tornado shelters

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A Toledo City Council hearing aimed at finding tornado shelter options for mobile-home park dwellers yielded inconclusive results Monday because only two officials who were invited showed up.

Two Lucas County officials — Joe Walter, director of the emergency management agency, and Maj. John Tharp of the sheriff's office — testified before the Public Safety, Law and Criminal Justice Committee about how mobile-home residents can stay safe during a tornado and about a federal grant available to build tornado shelters.

But three top public safety officials for the city — police Chief Derrick Diggs, fire Chief Luis Santiago, and Public Safety Director Shirley Green — declined an invitation by Councilman D. Michael Collins to attend the meeting.

Their absence infuriated Mr. Collins, the committee chairman, who said he had planned to establish a city-county committee specifically to address the tornado shelter needs in mobile-home parks. Without city officials in attendance, that's unlikely to happen, he said.

Mr. Collins, who frequently bumps heads with Mayor Mike Bell and his administration, quickly condemned the absence of city officials as a snub against Toledoans.

"I'm very pessimistic that anything positive is going to come out of this," he said after the meeting. "I think it sends a chilling message to our citizens that those who are most exposed to the issues which a tornado brings, those who live in manufactured homes, are of very little concern to those responsible for public safety in the City of Toledo."

When contacted by the Blade, Ms. Green said city officials had no reason to attend the hearing because tornado safety is the domain of the Lucas County Emergency Management Agency. The city's fire and police departments each have a representative who works with the EMA office to represent Toledo's interests, she said, and Mr. Walter speaks for the agency as a whole.

"No one from the city went because the agency that is in charge of emergency operation and evaluation plans was there and there was nothing new that we could add to it," Ms. Green said. "The city does care [about mobile-home residents] and that's why we work with EMA, to keep all of our citizens, not just those in mobile-home parks, safe."

Toledo police Sgt. Joe Heffernan said Chief Diggs was unable to attend because he was out of town. Toledo fire spokesman and Lt. Matthew Hertzfeld said Chief Santiago had been informed by the mayor he didn't need to go.

Councilman George Sarantou, who attended a portion of the meeting, agreed it was more important for EMA officials to be at the hearing.

"My understanding is this is part of Homeland Security and the county [emergency management] committee oversees that and this is their jurisdiction," he said.

No mobile-home residents attended the meeting. Two people in the audience said they represented mobile-home park owners but declined to be interviewed.

In his presentation to council, Mr. Walter said federal grant money is available to build emergency shelters, but the amount shrinks every year and it is difficult to obtain.

He stressed it is important that mobile-home residents themselves plan where to take shelter during a tornado alert.

People who live in mobile homes are at greater risk of death or injury from a tornado than those who live in houses, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Councilman Rob Ludeman said addressing storm safety for mobile-home residents is a valid concern, although it could be expanded to other community members such as those living in homes without basements.

Educating residents about tornado safety is key, he said. He said officials also should explore whether tax or insurance incentives are available to encourage mobile-home park owners to invest in tornado shelters.

"I don't think the government needs to get into funding things like that," he said.

Mr. Ludeman declined to offer an opinion on the absence of city officials at the hearing, saying he didn't want to get involved in tensions between Mr. Collins and the Bell administration.

Mr. Collins, meanwhile, called on organizations in Toledo to contact city council offices if they have buildings that could be used as public tornado shelters.

Council then can compile a list of these possibilities and share it with the community, he said.

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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