County news

Abilene residents who have taken shelter in the basement of the Dickinson County Courthouse during severe storms are going to have to find somewhere else to go.

During jail construction, the meeting room in the basement will not be available, County Administrator Brad Homman told commissioners Thursday.

“Anybody that relies on the courthouse needs to make other plans during storm season,” Homman said, but added that staff would not turn anyone away seeking shelter during regular courthouse business hours.

As it turns out, however, another public location may become available.

Abilene Public Schools Superintendent Greg Brown said Monday that he learned a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between USD 435 and the city of Abilene had been drafted but never signed. The unsigned MOU designates Dwight D. Eisenhower as a public storm shelter when school is not in session.

Brown said it’s thought the MOU “fell through the cracks” because it was drafted around the time former Abilene City Manager Austin Gilley was terminated and Interim Superintendent Gary Nelson was in his final weeks with the school district.

Courthouse not secure

In the past, county staff has allowed the public to use the courthouse basement as a tornado shelter. However, with construction beginning for the new jail, that will not be possible because two “open” offices without walls cannot be secured after business hours.

Last week, the east door that serves the jail was boarded up, meaning all access to the building is through the south and west doors.

“With the courthouse east entrance being closed and all foot traffic coming in and out the south and west entrance, we don’t have any way to restrict people from them (clerk and treasurer’s office),” Homman said.

Before, people seeking shelter could enter through the east door and proceed to the basement. A gate cordoned off the east entry from the rest of the courthouse and prohibited access to the two open offices used by the county clerk and treasurer.

“The jail is in there 24/7, so all people had to do was come to the back door, push a button and the jail would buzz them in,” Dickinson County Emergency Management Director Chancy Smith said Friday. “When the cage was down, all you could get to was the meeting room downstairs and the bathrooms. Everything else was locked up.

“With the construction, we have to leave the building completely open. We can’t lock the screen because people can’t get through the building. It’s not secure for people to roam around after hours, and we don’t have staff that can follow people around,” Smith added.

Many shelter there

Smith said it’s not unusual to have up to 25 people taking shelter in the courthouse basement meeting room waiting for bad weather to pass.

“We’ve always had at least four or five in there, even when we have a severe thunderstorm warning,” Smith explained. “There are people who live in houses with no basements and trailer houses, and when the weather is bad they don’t want to be home.”

The basement also attracts visitors staying at the campgrounds on the south side of Abilene and many from the mobile home parks.

Smith said he’s trying to alert people so they know the basement will not be available during construction.

“I don’t want people running to the courthouse when it’s not safe out when they’d be safer at home,” Smith explained.

Nowhere else to go

The courthouse basement is the only public space that’s been open for Abilene area residents’ use during storms.

Except for Abilene, every major city in the county either has a city shelter or a designated facility like a school or church.

Chapman, which was struck head-on by a tornado in 2008 and dodged a tornado scare in 2016, has three shelters — at the district gym, the city office and the community center. Enterprise opens up its basement library meeting room, Solomon has two shelters in churches and Herington has two city shelters.

The city of Abilene does not have a facility available that can serve as a storm shelter, said Interim City Manager Jane Foltz.

As for using Eisenhower Elementary, Brown said that once he learns more information about the MOU and what’s needed, an agreement to use the school could be signed fairly quickly.

If the MOU is approved, Eisenhower Elementary would not be available as a shelter during the school day.

“We would need it to get our kids in there,” Brown said.

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