A tornado shelter designed to unlock during a weather emergency failed to work as sirens blared on June 15, leaving campers waiting for assistance at Delaware State Park.
However, when a second tornado warning sounded that night, the doors were already unlocked at a 75-foot-wide by 28-foot-high steel-reinforced domed shelter designed to hold more than 850 people and withstand winds of more than 200 miles per hour.
“We are aware of the reports regarding access to the Delaware State Park safe room, and we are working with Ohio Dept.of Natural Resources to rectify the issue. Provisions are in place for access should any other warnings be issued,” the Delaware County Office of Homeland Security Management posted on Facebook at 1:08 a.m. Sunday.
On Sunday, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources issued the following statement: “Delaware County Emergency Management and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources consider the safety and well being of our guests our top priority. Effective immediately, temporary measures are in place to ensure the shelter at Delaware State Park is accessible. Our agencies are working together to determine exactly why the designated shelter failed to open in a timely manner Saturday evening. Our staff responded as quickly as possible to resolve the delay, and we are working to make certain it doesn’t happen again. We apologize to any guests who were unable to seek immediate shelter.”
The $1 million structure, which was built last year, is an intergovernmental project with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Delaware County Board of Commissioners and Ohio Emergency Management Agency. It is owned by ODNR. The tornado shelter was officially unveiled in May at Delaware State Park’s campgrounds. It had worked properly a couple weeks ago, when two successive tornado warnings had been issued for Delaware County.
“We did have a warning, and 94 people were directed to use the safe house previously,” said Delaware County Commissioner Barb Lewis. “When I found out this happened, I wanted to know how and why. We’ve got to get this fixed. The most important thing was the shelter was open and kept open after the first warning. We just can’t let this sort of thing happen again.”
In a press conference Monday, ODNR District Manager Steve Harvey said a park supervisor was contacted around 10 p.m. about the shelter remaining locked, and he used a key to unlock the doors within 20 minutes. Harvey said 20-30 people had been waiting initially (although social media posts suggested there were at least twice that many), and a couple people were finally let in. The sirens are located at the park’s south marina and the nearby campground registration office. There are 210 campsites at the park, and Harvey said it was 90 percent full on Father’s Day weekend. A camper host, who would have had a set of keys for the shelter, was not on site at the time of the incident, Harvey said.
ODNR and EMA are working on contingency plans to have access to extra keys, possibly in a lock box, as well as a coded keypad installed on the door, Harvey said. However, he did not want too many people to have keys, because it would increase the chances of vandalism. He said the shelter has already been vandalized once.
“The way that the system is supposed to work is that when the sirens are sounded, that same radio frequency signal will trip the doors to automatically unlock them,” said Delaware County EMA Director Sean Miller. “Hose door mechanisms did not unlock automatically with sirens. There’s no other action needed by a human with that door if it’s working.”
Miller said if there is a power outage, there is a grid generator onsite that is designed to unlock the shelter’s doors by default. In addition, the sirens are tested monthly, and there have not been any issues to date.
“This is something that we are taking very seriously,” Miller said. “I go to that park along with my family, so this means a great deal to me. We are investigating not only what went wrong, but future methods for access to the safe room. We’re going to have a solid game plan going forward for access around the clock. We will get to the bottom of it.”
The vendor involved with building the shelter was inspecting it on Monday, along with park staff, Miller said.
In the meantime, heavy rains have closed the park’s marina ramp and beach, with warning signs and roads blocked.
“One of the main points we like to make during flood season is ‘Turn Around, Don’t Drown.’ You could get trapped in your car. It doesn’t take a whole lot of water to float your car,” Miller said.
“We received an update from the vendor,” ODNR Spokeswoman Maureen Kocot said in an email sent late Monday afternoon. “As of approximately 3:45 p.m., the issues with the Tornado Shelter Alarm and door locks were resolved. We are anticipating a formal, detailed response of what the issues were and what caused them by end of day tomorrow (June 18).”
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.