Published September 14, 2011
There's a comedic definition of bureaucracy that goes like this: You have two cows. The government takes them both. They kill one cow. They milk the other, then pour the milk down the drain.
In Alabama, people affected by a case of bureaucracy say it would be hilarious if it weren't so tragically misguided.
On April 27, Alabama was hit -- along with Mississippi, Georgia and many other states -- by the worst outbreak of tornadoes in almost 100 years. In all, more than 350 people died. Thousands of structures were either damaged or destroyed -- among them, many schools.
In Marion County, Ala., the Hackleburg elementary and high schools were decimated. Next door, in Franklin County, Phil Campbell High School was in ruins. Across the state, in DeKalb County, Plainview High School was left uninhabitable.
In all of those school districts, students are now in portable classrooms -- single-wide trailers. With another tornado season ramping up for November, county officials are worried about students being housed in what essentially are tornado magnets.
To its credit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in and made a generous offer to the counties -- one it has never made before. It would pay 75 percent of the cost (using taxpayer dollars) of a hardened storm shelter on school property so students would have a safe place to go should a tornado take aim. County school districts and the Alabama Emergency Management Agency jumped at the offer, each putting up 12.5 percent of the remaining cost.
The buildings -- able to house 600 or more people -- are pricey. The cost runs about $500,000. The school districts are in for about $62,500. Given the sorry state of school budgets, that is a stretch for them.
Now here's where the bureaucratic red tape comes in. Under FEMA regulations, the tornado shelters are considered "temporary" -- only necessary while the schools are being repaired and the students are in the trailers. When the schools are rebuilt or repaired, FEMA rules state that the federal government has to get rid of the shelters.
That can happen three ways:
1) The schools can buy the shelter from FEMA (about $375,000);
2) The schools can find a buyer;
3) If neither 1) nor 2) is feasible, FEMA will give the schools more taxpayer money to demolish the shelter and haul away the debris.
"Financially, we cannot buy the facility. It just won't happen," said Ryan Hollingsworth, schools superintendent in Marion County.
"We are like most rural systems in Alabama," Charles Warren, superintendent of DeKalb County schools, told Fox News. "We just don't have a half a million dollars to use toward something like that."
Neither school district figures it could find an outside buyer either, and even if they could, they don't know how they could dismantle and move shelters that have been built as permanent structures tough enough to handle 250 mph winds.
For them, that means there's no option left but to take the money from FEMA to tear down the shelter and haul away the rubble. The superintendents figure that cost would be more than $100,000.
"I don't like to use words like insane or crazy, but that's what it is," Warren said of the FEMA rule. "The FEMA regulations make about as much sense to me as the Navy building a new ship -- taking it out in the middle of the Atlantic and sinking it.”
New Alabama building codes require new schools to have a safe room inside. Because DeKalb county's Plainview High School is simply being repaired, it will be left with no tornado shelter when the FEMA structure is gone.
Schools in Hackleburg, where 18 people died in the April storms, are being rebuilt from the ground up so they will have integrated safe rooms. Still, Hollingsworth says there is plenty of need for the tornado shelter in the community.
"I think it's insane -- it's new territory," he said. "We are going to have a facility here that I think the entire community -- not just our school -- can use and we all paid for that. So it makes no sense to tear it down. None at all."
Alabama Reps. Robert Aderholt and Spencer Bachus have stepped in to try to change the policy. Bachus went all the way to the top, writing a letter to President Obama declaring the regulation "short-sighted and indefensible."
"We have limited resources," Bachus said. "But it's totally absurd to take a perfectly good shelter and destroy it. Use taxpayer money to build it, then use taxpayer money to destroy it."
FEMA is not backing away from its regulations, saying in a statement to Fox News: "We continue to evaluate all the options available to FEMA and the school district to ensure that each community is provided every federal resource that they are eligible for under the law while remaining proper stewards of the taxpayers' dollar.”
Late Wednesday, Aderholt spoke with FEMA Director Craig Fugate.
"He acknowledges the problem with this particular situation," Aderholt said in an email to Fox News. "Over the next 30 days, I’ll be working with him and my delegation colleagues to find a solution. In addition, Congressman Bachus and I introduced legislation today that would make storm shelters available to local governing bodies at no additional costs. Hopefully, this will not take an act of Congress to ensure we get this done and get it done right."
The counties are very appreciative that FEMA stepped in to fill a void in safety for so many hundreds of children. But the policy that will leave them no choice but to tear down the shelter is nothing less than absurd to school officials.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense from a taxpayer standpoint to see your tax dollars wasted," Hollingsworth said.
"We think this is just a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars," Warren said. "No wonder people are skeptical of government when they see waste like this."