CLEVELAND - An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation reveals nearly $1 million in federal cash earmarked for Ohio homeowners to build life-saving tornado shelters remains unused.
The Ohio Safe Room Program, operated by the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, was announced in July 2012 and predicted 150 safe rooms — specially designed tornado shelters — would be constructed across the state.
Since then, Ohio has received $1,082,595 in federal, state and local funding to assist homeowners who applied to the program and were selected in a random lottery.
The vast majority of the funding was provided through $812,000 in grants by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that supports the Safe Room Program as a vital effort that can save lives.
Yet nearly two years after the program was first announced, only 35 shelters have been built — leaving $885,000 left untouched and at risk of being withdrawn if not used by sometime after July 2015.
In addition, our investigation found homeowners in half of Ohio's 88 counties were ineligible to apply for the life-saving shelters because local county officials failed to file vital paperwork for years.
We found 45 counties across Ohio allowed what's called "Hazard Mitigation Plans" to simply expire — barring homeowners in those counties from receiving vital funding to build tornado shelters.
In Northeast Ohio, counties with expired mitigation plans include Lorain, Geauga and Portage.
Spokespersons for all three counties say new plans are being worked on and blame complex details that are required for plans to meet FEMA approval, plus time-consuming collaboration with scores of community leaders necessary to identify hazard mitigation needs within individual counties.
Hazard mitigation is defined as flooding, tornado risk and similar threats that lead to property damage and loss of life.
Stephen Babjack is among the 35 homeowners who have installed "safe rooms" through a lottery held last year and called the program "very easy" to follow and is convinced it will save lives.
"I'm very surprised," admits Babjack, referencing only 25 percent of the 150 shelters installed.
"We were one of the first to get our shelter done and get our rebate back — I'm surprised this late in the game there is only 30 some accomplished out of the 150, because to me, this was not a difficult program to navigate."
Babjack relied on a Mentor, Ohio-based company called Perfect Storm Shelter for his safe room, which is built of steel and can withstand an F-5 tornado.
Even so, Perfect Storm Shelter spokesperson Mike Strazinsky admits Ohio sales have lagged behind calls from other states.
"Generally speaking," says Strazinsky, "90 to 95 percent of our sales are outside the state of Ohio."
Yet Ohio's Emergency Management Agency says Ohio ranks in the top 20 states in tornado risk and reveals that Ohio has been hit with 731 tornadoes since 1950 that caused over 200 deaths and 4,000 injuries.
Steve Ferryman, who supervises the Ohio Safe Room Program for the state, blames "weather conditions and the fact that we've granted extensions to several of those property owners and that work will continue into the spring and summer.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency says 67 homeowners who were selected in the random lottery drawing for safe rooms dropped out of the program after being selected.
Homeowners were originally required to contribute 12.5 percent of the cost of the shelter, which averages about $6,000, but that figure has now climbed to 25 percent.
Officials have not announced when another lottery for safe room funding will be held.