Seniors living in two county-run communities in Scandia and Forest Lake will soon have a place to go for shelter during big windstorms or tornadoes, thanks to nearly $200,000 in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

A $121,323 agency grant will help build two "safe rooms" at Oakhill Neighborhood Cottages in Scandia, and another $69,632 for a similar project at John Jergens Estates in Forest Lake.

The grants represent 75 percent of the construction costs. The other 25 percent — $40,441 for the Scandia project and $23,210 for the one in Forest Lake — are paid for by the cities which, in turn, get those funds from the Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Both Oakhill Cottages, with 40 housing units, and John Jergens Estates, with 30 units, are for seniors aged 55 and over. They are fairly new developments, but the buildings have no basements and are built on slabs.

"It's been a concern, especially with some of the severe weather we've had up there in recent years," said Bill Lightner, project manager with the Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. At times of severe weather, residents have to look for protection in sturdy interior rooms, such as bathrooms.

The reinforced-concrete safe rooms, which will be built to FEMA specifications to withstand the ferocity of a tornado, are very costly, Lightner said. "Basically, they're very cost-prohibitive without the help of these grants."

The shelters will be built above ground, and resemble a garage. They will include a restroom, a battery-powered emergency lighting system and a ventilation system, but will not be heated. Lightner said each safe room at the Scandia site will have room for 40 people, including enough benches to seat 29; the Forest Lake shelter will hold 60, with seating for 48. Both will have room for wheelchairs.

Construction could start later this summer.

The grants are part of FEMA's mission to protect lives, said Kris Eide, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"Tornado safe rooms are one way communities across the state are reducing the risk that comes with disasters," Eide said. "We're encouraging more cities and counties to apply for grants that will help them protect their residents."

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