On many Missouri maps, Niangua’s total area of 0.4 square miles barely merits a pinpoint. Located about 34 miles north of Springfield in Webster County, Niangua is definitely a small town.
Less than 500 people live there, and of those less than 230 attend either the elementary or high school.
But despite its size, the Niangua school district successfully won a FEMA competition that netted a FEMA grant to cover 90% of the cost of a Monolithic Dome disaster shelter.
How did they do it?
According to Andy Adams, Niangua School District Superintendent, and Linda Watts, Webster County Emergency Management Administrator, getting the grant was neither fast nor easy.
By July 2005, when Mr. Adams began as Superintendent, the grant had already been written and submitted. He said that from that time until ground was actually broken, 3 1/2 years elapsed during which they had to keep the project alive.
“We had to keep everyone focused,” Mr. Adams said. He would call Gary Clark, Monolithic’s Vice President of Sales, Gary would call Linda Watts and supply her with everything she needed to know about Monolithic Domes, and Ms. Watts would pass that information onto FEMA.
“Linda did the actual grant writing and she did a terrific job,” Mr. Adams said. “It took persistence — lots of red tape that you have to go through anytime you deal with the federal government.”
Writing the Grant
Ms. Watts said that FEMA has different types of grants. For Niangua, she applied for a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant or PDM.
On its website, FEMA defines PDM as a program that provides “funds to states, territories, Indian tribal governments, communities, and universities for hazard mitigation planning and the implementation of mitigation projects prior to a disaster event. Funding these plans and projects reduces overall risks to the population and structures ….”
Eligibility for a PDM relies heavily on need. Ms. Watts explained, “We had to prove qualification by showing that Niangua is in a disaster-prone area and that it is a small, impoverished community.”
She did a Natural Hazard Mitigation Analysis. Webster County Emergency Management has a state mitigation book with historical documentation of past disasters, their frequency and devastation. It showed that Niangua’s tornado activity is 26% greater than the national average.
Its listed tornadoes included two Category 4, each of which caused between $50,000 and $500,000 in damages. The first hit 11.4 miles from Niangua’s city center on September 26, 1959. While 29 miles away, the second killed two persons and injured 64 on November 29, 1991.
The need for financial assistance was documented by the State of Missouri that qualified Niangua as a small, impoverished community. It has a small population, the revenue generated is minimal and the unemployment rate is high.
Ms. Watts said, “The application states exactly what information is needed, and you have to give them exactly what’s asked for.”
Niangua’s grant application was completed at a local level, then sent to the state level, where it joined others for review by a state board. After passing the state board’s review, the application went to FEMA’s regional level. There it again competed, passed and was sent to FEMA’s national review board, where it succeeded in qualifying for a FEMA PDM Grant!
FEMA would cover 90% of the construction cost of a FEMA-approved disaster shelter; Niangua would be responsible only for the remaining 10% that it could get from SEMA, Missouri’s State Emergency Management Agency, and in-kind donations of goods or services.
Niangua had its disaster shelter — or so everyone thought.
Disappointment, Frustration, Victory
Niangua wasted no time in putting its project out for bid. “That was in 2006,” Ms. Watts recalled. "We had a grant for about $313,000 and it went up for bid the conventional way. And every single bid came in well over the limit.
“We thought we were going to have to give back our grant! Through a contact, we got information about Monolithic Domes. We gave them a call. Monolithic gave us a price that was within budget!”
Ms. Watts then began gathering information proving that a Monolithic Dome disaster shelter met and exceeded FEMA’s standards for a structure that could provide what the agency calls “near-absolute protection.”
Niangua’s Monolithic Dome Disaster Shelter
On January 14, 2009, while a fascinated crowd and local media watched, a South Industries crew supervised by Doug Jensen inflated the Airform for a disaster shelter designed by Architect Michael McCoy. When completed, this Monolithic Dome will have a diameter of 61.4 feet and a height of 21 feet that includes a nine-foot-high stemwall.
More importantly, it will have the ability to shelter 400 people from tornadoes with winds of up to 300 mph.
Asked how the school plans to use its new dome in non-disaster times, Mr. Adams said, “We’re moving our preschoolers
- three and four-year-olds — out of a trailer and into this safe house. I can’t think of a better place to move them to. And we will still have room for another classroom.”
Since the dome will have bathrooms and some kitchen equipment, it can provide temporary housing for disaster survivors.
Advice for schools needing a grant
Ms. Watts suggests that a school begin by contacting local government and its state emergency management agency. She said, “The school should see if its state has someone who knows how to apply for grants or who can provide the training. Grants are out there and FEMA regional offices have all the information on just how to apply and what’s needed.”
David South, president of Monolithic, said, “A school wanting a disaster shelter should contact us. There is no safer building than a Monolithic Dome. We have printed literature, information on www.monolithic.com and video presentations with all the information any government agency may want.”
A final word or two!
“We’re thrilled with the dome shelter we’re getting,” Mr. Adams said. “I can tell you that. It’s been a long wait, but it’s been worth it. The guys on the South Industries crew are just the greatest — courteous, diligent. I’ve enjoyed talking with Gary Clark and the folks at Monolithic. It’s just been a good experience. I hope I can move on to somewhere else some day and do this again.”
Note: January 22, 2009