Alabama officials reverse course, allow road signs directing people to tornado shelter

Shown here is the sign DeKalb County officials want to put up along a state road in Alabama.

Shown here is the sign DeKalb County officials want to put up along a state road in Alabama.

The Alabama Department of Transportation has reversed course, and decided to work with local county officials on installing road signs meant to direct people to a new tornado shelter -- after an official initially resisted on the grounds that shelter signs had not been approved for state roads. 

The decision comes after Fox News first reported that the state was blocking county schools Superintendent Charles Warren from putting up road signs meant to guide people to a shiny new tornado shelter FEMA had built at a local high school which had been devastated by a tornado last spring. 

A statement from the Alabama transportation department acknowledged that they "fell short in taking discussions with DeKalb County officials beyond consideration of the sign that was initially proposed." 

The statement said Transportation Director John Cooper "has asked transportation officials from his office in Montgomery to work with DeKalb County officials on identifying appropriate signage for local storm shelters." 

The department added that it doesn't actually have a policy barring storm shelter signs, and stressed that requests just need to be coordinated through the department. 

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"There was never any intention of not working with local officials, and if there was a temporary roadblock, we're back on the right road toward appropriate signage that identifies storm shelters. We are in the process of working with local officials and State EMA officials to develop and install appropriate signage," the statement said. 

The trouble getting the signs installed was just the latest bureaucratic problem for DeKalb County officials. They earlier had fought, successfully, to prevent FEMA from tearing down tornado shelters that were being built at schools. 

Plainview High School, where the shelter referenced above was built, was devastated last spring by a tornado that roared through during the epic April 27 outbreak, in which 33 people lost their lives in DeKalb County. 

But because the proposed road signs would be placed along a state highway, the Alabama Department of Transportation initially opposed Warren's request for street signs. 

In an email exchange with Warren obtained by Fox News, DOT traffic engineer Travis Kilgore explained the state's position. 

"The use of shelter directional signs have not yet been approved for installation on state roads," he wrote, adding that "the overuse and overcrowding of signs can be a distraction to motorist (sic) and often lead to a disregard or disrespect of necessary regulatory and roadway warning signs." 

The email suggested that signs pointing the way to a shelter might only lead to accidents or an epidemic of disrespect for other road signs. 

Kilgore insisted that students who would use the shelter during the day know where it is and that many local citizens nearby the school also know where it is -- so no need to put a sign on the state road telling them where to look. 

He appeared, however, to concede that clear directions are important, but he didn't want state roads to be a part of it. 

"We understand the importance of notifying and guiding the public to storm shelters, but we cannot permit these signs on state routes," he wrote. 

Warren pleaded with the state DOT to change its mind, pointing out that Highway 35 is a busy route across the northern part of the state. Many people from out of town -- who missed all the news reports about the shelter's construction -- might be looking for a place to hide should a tornado suddenly appear, he reasoned. 

"Their lives could be saved by knowing where a place of refuge is when a tornado is imminent," Warren wrote. "We have the signs -- two of them -- already manufactured and ready for placement."

John Roberts currently serves as the chief White House correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined the network as a senior national correspondent in January 2011, based in the Atlanta bureau.