Building Baldwin County's Storm-Proof Arena And Coliseum

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

As hurricane season again moves into full swing, those along much of the Gulf Coast are making sure that they're prepared should storms again strike in the area.

In some areas, this involves constructing new hurricane-resistant structures — and one such project, completed earlier this year, is a new arena and coliseum located in coastal Alabama in Robertsdale, Baldwin County.

When not doing storm duty, it houses the offices and activities of the Baldwin County Cattle and Fair Association. But should a storm come it will serve as a state-of-the-art disaster shelter able to accommodate 5,000 people during a short-term emergency or as many as 1,900 long-term.

The project is funded largely with a $7.5-million grant from FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant program. The Baldwin County Commission and BCCFA provided the remaining portion of the project's $9-million cost through a loan from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The project was constructed by White-Spunner Construction, a general contracting and construction management company based in Mobile, AL, with branch offices in Dallas, TX, and Raleigh, NC.

Not Your Grandpa's Fallout Shelter

The main bunker-style coliseum structure was designed and constructed under stringent guidelines that are rarely seen in building projects today, explains Tommy Rowe, executive vice-president, division manager, owner, for White-Spunner Construction, Inc. For example, it's designed to withstand 200 mile-per-hour sustained winds and to stand up to a 15 pound, 12-foot-long 2-by-4 flying at 100 miles per hour from any direction without damage.

The adjoining arena was also designed and constructed to meet wind codes with storm survival in mind. Under normal duty, the roofed-but-wall-free arena can seat 3,500 people. But because it is close to the coliseum, which is intended as a shelter, the arena also had to meet more stringent standards to keep it from becoming a hazard in a storm. For example, the arena's roof is designed to handle 140-mph winds.

"Overall," Rowe adds, "It's not your grandpa's fallout shelter.."

Storm-Proofing A Structure

Impact resistant roll-down door protectors enhance the storm-proof quality of the facility.

According to Rowe, the project presented a number of unique construction challenges. For example, in order to meet stringent FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) building codes that require the entire building be capable of withstanding 200-mph winds, many of the supplies and materials used during construction had to be custom-made.

The building's structural elements are exceptionally robust too. Particularly impressive are the structure's footings, which were designed to resist uplift forces of 200-mph winds. The resulting interior concrete footings are 14 feet square and 20 inches deep. Additionally, in the arena area, the arena structure is anchored to footings measuring 4 feet 6 inches wide, 4 feet deep and 360 feet long.

The walls which those footings support are equally impressive. They were constructed using 12-inch CMU (concrete masonry unit) blocks with two No. 7 rebars reinforcing every cell. The result, in effect, is a set of 12-inch-thick solid concrete walls reinforced with 7/8-inch steel bars every 8 inches throughout the structure.

The roof, too, was designed and constructed with attention to storm survivability. Typical roof construction on a structure such as this usually calls for a lightweight concrete topping or insulation and membrane over metal decking. However, this one features a 6-inch-thick solid concrete roof, designed to deal with wind uplift and debris impact.

Survivability In The Details

In addition to the robust design approach and comprehensively solid approach to construction, the facility includes numerous other elements that enhance its ability to survive a storm and subsequently serve as a shelter.

For example, consider the building exits. Protective alcoves with right-angled concrete walkways protect the exit doors from wind-driven debris without reducing the exits' ability to function as emergency exits. In addition, the glass entry doors are protected by wind- and debris impact-resistant roll up doors that can quickly be put in place should the need arise.

The facility is also able to provide its own emergency power. A 1,000-kilowatt generator was also installed as part of the project. It has sufficient capacity to meet 100 percent of the Coliseum's power needs, and its 2,000 gallon fuel tank will provide approximately 50 hours of run time for the generator on a single tank of fuel. Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency will refuel the tank when needed in emergency situations.

The new coliseum will be open to the public for weddings, proms, balls, college fairs, and other community activities. The BCCFA plans to operate and maintain the facility year round. But should an emergency situation arise, the keys will be turned over to the Baldwin County Emergency Management Association, which will take over the facility and operate it until the emergency is over.