Sparta schools get $1.4 million grant to build FEMA-approved tornado shelter

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SPARTA, Mo. Spring brings mother nature's beautiful colors but unfortunately also marks a time when mother nature's fury has an increased risk of occurring.

In many rural towns like Sparta, there's no community-wide gathering place for people to seek shelter when tornadoes rumble through their area.

But by the 2021-22 school year, thanks to a $1.4 million dollar grant from the federal and state emergency management agencies, a shelter will be built on the Sparta campus that houses the elementary and middle schools as well as the early childhood center, a modular mobile home-sized structure that has around 60 youngsters ages 3-to-5 in cramped conditions.

"There's not a lot of storage space here so the classrooms are cluttered and the kids are kind of on top of each other," explained Sparta elementary school principal Melissa Payne.

The good news is that the new FEMA safe room, which will hold around 800 people, will not only become Sparta's first-ever tornado shelter for the town, but it will also replace the early childhood center's mobile home, which is not one of the best places to be in severe weather.

"Having the little guys over here in this trailer is a concern when there's severe weather," Payne said. "So to have them in a building where we can just move them across the hall and they will be safe at all times is a huge stress relief for everybody involved."

The 8,000-sq. foot safe room, which includes around $400,000 of the school district's matching funds as well, will be built on land adjacent to the preschool trailer near the bus barn and within quick walking distance of both the elementary and middle schools. In fact, part of the extensive red tape in qualifying for the FEMA grant included a video of Sparta students going through a tornado drill.

"You have to be able to show that you can get those students into that safe space within five minutes," explained Sparta superintendent Rocky Valentine.

While the completion date for the new safe room is still some two years away, the school district has learned to be patient. They've applied for the grant before over the last six years but as Valentine pointed out, "the money was not available at that time. In fact, our district, Miller, and Neosho were told that it was not gonna happen."

Now though this town of 1,900 will finally have a secured shelter on school grounds not just for children, but for residents as well.

"It's not uncommon for us if there's a big storm coming through for people to show up to our buildings," Valentine said. "This will be able to hold all our students and some community members as well so we're excited about that for our town because this is the first one outside of what Ozark has."

"To have something available where we can keep our kids safe plus their parents and families it's just a huge blessing to be able to offer our community that kind of service," Payne added.

The state and federal emergency management agencies must still sign-off on all the plans for the tornado shelter, so the hoped-for completion date of the 2021-22 school year could be affected by how quickly those plans get approved by the government.

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