Alabama red tape holding up storm shelters as tornado season approaches

Anthony Clifton is the emergency management director for DeKalb County, Ala. He remembers well April 27, 2011. That's when three killer tornadoes roared through the county. Thirty-one people died that day.

The tornados "basically plowed a path for about 38 miles all the way to the north end of the county," he said. But how many community-size tornado shelters were there for people to take refuge in that day?

"One," Clifton told Fox News, and it was private, not public.

For a year before the storms hit, DeKalb County had been trying to install six large, pre-fab community storm shelters. Each one would hold about 100 people. But red tape in the bidding process tied the county up in knots.

First, Aqua Marine, which makes the popular Safe-T-Shelter -- of which there are hundreds in place across Alabama -- ran afoul of the bidding process because it didn't have a general contractor's license. The county commission, which had awarded the bid, had to start all over. That was April 26, 2011.

The storms hit the next day. Recovery and reconstruction pushed the timeline for new bids back months.

Finally, in December, a new bid was awarded. Safe-T-Shelter's Aqua Marine, which had obtained a general contractor's license, won again. But an unsuccessful bidder for the foundation work sued, claiming the winning bid didn't have the right contractor's classification.

At the same time, the Alabama Manufactured Housing Commission -- which has legal authority over storm shelters, but never exercised it before -- flexed its regulatory muscle, demanding all storm shelter manufacturers and installers be licensed, bonded, insured and certified according to its rules -- of course, after paying all necessary and associated fees.

The MHC is also demanding that all shelter installations be inspected, though it doesn't have enough inspectors to do the job. It wants to turn that role over to the already-burdened counties.

And just last week, the state attorney general ruled that another entity -- the Alabama Licensing Board for General Contractors -- also had jurisdiction over the installation of storm shelters. All of this has forced DeKalb County to restart the bidding process from scratch for a third time.

"I recognize that we got to have rules, regulations -- we have got to put it up safe -- we understand that," said Ricky Harcrow, chairman of the DeKalb County commission. "But the magnitude of the roadblocks that we have hit are just uncalled for."

It's enough bureaucracy and red tape for Clifton, who says the county likely won't get shelters in time for this spring's tornado season.

"The best word I can use is 'frustrating,'" Clifton said. "It's very difficult for me to look citizens in the county in the face and say, we don't have your storm shelter ready for this season simply because of red tape in Montgomery."

Critics believe the Manufactured Housing Commission jumped in because it smelled money. Certifications and permits can run to the hundreds of dollars. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency just approved funding for the installation of nearly 1,200 new shelters. That's a lot of fees for certifications.

Jim Sloan, administrator of the MHC, insists he's interested in public safety, not money. But the irony is lost on no one that the MHC, whose main function is to regulate the construction, sale and installation of mobile homes, which blow away like the little pigs' house of sticks in a tornado, wants to be in charge.

It's also frustrating for state officials that so much red tape has emerged around a product that has a proven track record in tornadoes.

Safe-T-Shelters have taken direct hits from tornadoes many times. One was hit by an F5 in Phil Campbell, Ala., last year and emerged untouched. More than 100 people rode out a tornado in Maplesville, Ala., in January in one, which also took a pounding from two trees that came down on it. No one was injured.

"I think there has been bureaucracy in this program. And I think that's what we're trying to eliminate," said Art Faulkner, director of the state's Emergency Management Agency, which administers federal grants to install storm shelters, including the DeKalb County project.

But Faulkner says his hands are tied by state regulations.

"What makes sense and what I am required by law to do, sometimes are different things," he said.

State lawmakers are trying to streamline the process, introducing legislation that would take the MHC out of the process and turn it over to Alabama EMA, but that only applies to smaller, private shelters holding 12 or fewer people. Larger, community shelters will still need to go through a cumbersome approval and inspection process.

Clifton is about at his wits' end. The earliest the county can start the bidding again is the last Tuesday in February. He said he can't begin to understand why state officials haven't stepped in to help out, particularly after seeing what happened last year.

"They were here," he said. "They were on the ground. The governor himself was here. And then to let this drag out the way it has is unforgivable."