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November 19. 2012 10:49PM

Officials want emergency shelter at Epping High School

EPPING - Town and school officials are working on a proposal to purchase a large generator that would allow the gymnasium at Epping High School to serve as an emergency shelter and community support center when the next disaster strikes.

Given the cycle of violent weather and historic power outages that have hit New Hampshire in recent years, officials said it's only a matter of time before a shelter will be needed.

"We just want to be responsive when these acts of God damage parts of our community," said Fire Chief Don DeAngelis, who also serves as the town's emergency management director.

Local emergency officials have been working with selectmen, the school board and school administrators to create a plan for a shelter that would not only help people who need a place to stay overnight but also provide water, food and power capabilities for people to be able to charge cell phones and other electronics that have proven vital in past storms, officials said.

Floods and other bad storms that have caused widespread power outages in recent years have also taught officials the importance of establishing a central location where residents can get important storm-related information, DeAngelis said, adding that a shelter at the high school would serve that purpose as well.

The shelter would also have medical personnel on hand to assist residents.

"In this day and age we don't want to think of shelters as just a place for overnight stays. We need to support citizens during the day with food, water, supplies, information and a place to charge," DeAngelis said.

After much discussion, officials decided that the high school would be the best location for the shelter. DeAngelis said the school has two portable generators, but they can only provide light. A more powerful generator needs to be permanently installed and wired up to allow the school to operate in the event of a power outage that lasts for many days.

The cost of purchasing and installing the generator and making other building changes is estimated to cost around $200,000, said Jeff Harris, a school board member who has worked closely with the town on the shelter plan.

The proposal would likely be included on a warrant article to be decided by voters in March. The town would seek a federal grant to cover half of the cost, officials said.

A local shelter that offers housing and other services is critical because officials have learned over the years that residents prefer to stay at home during an outage. They also don't want to travel to regional shelters in other towns.

"Let's face it. People don't want to go someplace else. They want to stay here," Harris said.

Harris also prefers the high school location because voting could still occur at the building during a disaster as the gymnasium has a separate entrance. Harris voiced concern about a storm impacting elections after seeing how Hurricane Sandy fouled up polling locations in New York and New Jersey.

The shelter plan hasn't been finalized, but is expected to be discussed at a selectmen's meeting on Nov. 26.

jschreiber@newstote.com


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