Commission chairman commits to storm shelter construction
By Michael Wetzel
For the Enquirer
Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long warned the courthouse in Decatur is not ideal protection from severe weather and pledged to have the county’s largest storm shelter built and operational in the city’s downtown by the middle of 2023.
At his 12th annual State of the County address Wednesday morning, Long said as many as 300 people gather in the county courthouse’s basement when tornado watches and warnings are issued.
“Our courthouse basement was not built for a shelter,” he said. “It was never intended to be used for a shelter.”
After the meeting, he said if a tornado was to directly hit the courthouse, he worries the “basement could become a mass grave.”
He said the basement can continue as a shelter because it’s a safer alternative than some of the homes. “It’s still safer than the trailers on the west side of town that a lot of the residents live in who go to the basement when tornadoes are possible in the area,” he said.
Preliminary plans for an official community shelter call for it to be built on the county-owned lot in front of the county jail parking lot along Lee Street. Long said the 10,000-square-foot shelter will have a price tag of about $2.5
million. It will be designed to house about 400 people during severe weather.
The county has about $10 million of its $23 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to put toward costs associated with COVID-19, and some of that remaining money could be used for the shelter if a grant is not found, Long said.
In December 2020, the county applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant, but the application was denied this past fall.
Long said he went to Washington this past week in hopes of finding additional grant money for the shelter.
“We’re working hard to get a new shelter. Getting a real shelter is not just a good idea, it’s a necessity. We’re going to make it happen, whether we have a grant or not,” he said. “We’re going to build a shelter to get those people out of the basement. That’s our responsibility: to give them real security, not false security.”
He said this item will be on the commission agenda before the end of the year.
Plans call for the county Emergency Management Agency office to locate at the new shelter and some sheriff’s department training to be conducted there.
The Decatur-Morgan County Chamber hosted the annual breakfast at which Long shared updates on the status of local issues and projects. More than 100 people attended.
Long also reported the license, revenue and parks and recreation offices in Hartselle, the Cotaco license and revenue office and the new gyms planned for West Park in the Neel community and Cotaco in the eastern part of the county are in the works for 2022.
He said the county purchased 27 acres for a new Morgan County Rescue Squad training center and the Cotaco gym. He cited the county’s growth in 2021, with Cerrowire’s expansion into the Morgan County Industrial Park in Hartselle and 154 subdivision lots approved by the county engineer’s office.
An upgrade of the jail’s 237 video cameras, a 100-person waiting room for the second floor of the courthouse and improvements at South Park and North Park are all projects Long touched on during his speech.
“The waiting room will be up and running this time next year,” he said. “It will have the security team in there, too.”
Jeremy Nails, executive director and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association, said it was good to hear Long tout the county’s success. In 2021 Long’s speech was delivered virtually because of the pandemic.
“They’re part of our teams,” Nails said. “Ray does a great job supporting our efforts. Thankfully, we’ve navigated COVID pretty well. We have a lot of momentum with new projects and expansions. They’re part of every project we work with.”