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Texas builds brawny domed structures to shelter citizens in hurricanes

| Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, 8:28 p.m.
On Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, a worker walks past an opening inside the domed Edna High School gym under construction in Edna, Texas. The hurricane dome, a structure being built in part with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, can be used to house first responders or residents evacuated during a storm. AP Photo

EDNA, Texas — Most of the time, the windowless building with the dome-shaped roof will be a typical high school gymnasium filled with cheering fans watching basketball and volleyball games.

But come hurricane season, the structure that resembles a miniature version of nearby Houston's famed Astrodome will double as a hurricane shelter, part of an ambitious storm defense system taking shape along hundreds of miles of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Its brawny design — including double-layer concrete block walls reinforced by heavy-duty steel bars and cement piers that plunge 30 feet into the ground — should allow it to withstand winds up to 200 mph.

“There is nothing standard” about the building, said Bob Wells, superintendent of the Edna school district, as he stood inside the $2.5 million gym, which is set to be completed by March. “The only standard stuff is going to be the stuff we do inside.”

The Edna dome is one of 28 such buildings planned to protect sick, elderly and special-needs residents who might be unable to evacuate ahead of a hurricane. First responders and local leaders will also be able to take refuge in the domes, allowing them to begin recovery efforts faster after a storm has passed.

Storm defense structures are getting increased attention in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which inflicted heavy damage on the East Coast in October. The city of New York, for instance, is considering a multibillion-dollar system of sea barriers.

For Texas, a state always in danger during hurricane season, the domes offer the extra benefit of serving as recreation or community centers when not needed as shelters. They are being erected with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The gym in Edna, a town of 5,500 people about 100 miles southwest of Houston, is the second hurricane dome in Texas. The first was built in 2011 in Woodsboro, near Corpus Christi. Most of the domes will be around 20,000 square feet.

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