11 News Investigates: What happened to storm shelter funding?

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) – After an EF-4 tornado turned homes to slabs two years ago, one of the first things homeowners did was install a storm shelter.

For 17 years, the Arkansas government gave rebates to individuals who installed shelters, but many of those affected by the most recent deadly tornado that night in April won’t ever see that money.

But why?

“It was thick and black and wide, and you just knew it was coming,” Dan Gaffney reflected on the tornado moving towards his family of eight in River Plantation April 27, 2014.

The Gaffneys lost everything as they hid in their storm shelter.

“We still have the same door, and you can see dents in it. That’s where we got hammered with debris,” he added.

When all eight family members and two dogs walked out of the shelter and up the street, they learned luck saved a neighbor, Donny Belew, who didn’t have a shelter.

“They go, ‘Do you have one now?’ Well, yeah, of course,” Belew said.

He installed a shelter into the ground of his garage.  To give perspective into how deep it is: about eight people  standing 5’7″ could fit inside the shelter.  If the entire house were to collapse on top, they wouldn’t get barricaded inside because the door recesses into itself.

Belew said, “The number one focus at the time was to get this, regardless if there is a rebate or not because I had to have a secure area for my family.”

The state Department of Emergency Management started a program offering rebates to Arkansans who install storm shelters in 1999.  Since then, 23,790 shelter rebates have been given out.

ADEM said the state set aside $1 million to distribute each year, but a waiting list built up in 2012 as the money allotted kept running out.

With so many people building shelters, ADEM set aside $2 million last year.

Today, 1,821 people are still waiting to get their rebate for building a shelter.

ADEM director David Maxwell said, “We’re not telling people not to build those; it’s just that we’re not going to be able to assist in the funding of those.”

Maxwell explained the government stopped the shelter rebate program last summer.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the program success is what led to its shutdown.  He said, “As the word got out about the availability of it, the demand stripped the resources.”

It was ultimately decided that state money would be better allocated to serve a population instead of individuals.

ADEM guarantees the $2 million funded for rebates will now go toward community shelters.

“In the long run, we’ll be able to help more people,” Maxwell added.

While Gaffey credits his survival to a storm shelter inside their home for quick access, ADEM said they are not going to start their new community program until backlog is paid off.

“This is going to be a long-term process,” Maxwell explained. He expects at least a year until the community shelter program starts.

Belew, speaking from his April 2014 experience, “Don’t wait until you get lucky like we did.”

The rebate was half the cost of the storm shelter, up to $1,000.  ADEM accepted storm shelter applications for shelters installed on or before June 30, 2015.  Applications needed to be turned in by January of this year.


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