West Tisbury School sought as possible emergency shelter

100 percent electrification pilot program is off the table.

West Tisbury School is a potential option to be an emergency shelter. — MV Times

The West Tisbury select board considered using West Tisbury School as an emergency shelter as part of work proposed for the building.

Recently, the Up-Island Regional School District presented recommendations for retrofitting West Tisbury School from the environmentally friendly school building task force. 

“Because of the potential size of the potential work that could occur to this school and because this work would really improve our school for maybe the next 50 years of its life, one of the things the school committee asked was, Well, what are other things that may need to be done to the school that should be added to the list, so that we are — you know, we are spending a lot of money on this school — we are doing what it needs?” task force chair Kate Warner said during the select board’s meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 28.

Warner said setting up the school “to be a potential shelter at some point” made sense to her. 

“This project is for the long term … to me, it would be a shame to throw millions and millions of dollars into this building and not have it ready to be a shelter should the town need it,” she said, adding that this component could open up paths to “specialized funding” from places like the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

West Tisbury emergency management director Russell Hartenstine said if the school was “to be improved upon for shelter work,” there are several things that need to be considered. The first was the “tremendous issues with power,” particularly with the wiring and generator. 

“Getting it wired correctly for generator service and emergency use is critical,” Hartenstine said. 

The other “major component the school lacks” is bathrooms. 

“They have to be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant bathrooms. We need places to wash people,” Hartenstine said. 

Hartenstine also said an isolated area needs to be found at the school, so “school functions can happen while the shelter is happening.”

“For example, you may not need a shelter for an Island-wide disaster of historic [proportions]; you need a place to house 30 or 50 people for a week or two,” he said. “If you have a school as your designated shelter, you might shut down your school, and that’s often not very effective and that becomes a political diffusion.”

Hartenstine said storage would need to be considered for both shelter materials and other things that might be needed during an emergency. 

The last time the school was considered for an emergency shelter was when there was a tornado, according to Hartenstine. “We had a tornado watch, we looked at the school then. The biggest component we found was that there was a lot of glass and exposure to the area around the school classrooms,” he said, adding that the only places that could house people were the basement or the gym, the latter being not safe against a tornado since it is a large structure. “If we’re going to plan long-term, what we’ve seen is in the past four or five years something we’ve never had before, which is tornado warnings. So, again, think about that if you’re going to plan for that as well.” 


Hartenstine continued by saying currently the West Tisbury library has been used as a cooling and warming shelter, with a capacity of around 20 people, and while it has a “nice large space and a kitchen,” it does not have enough bathrooms. 

Warner pointed out that the electrical system and generator are issues being worked on already. She asked which building in West Tisbury would be the ideal shelter location if, in the long term, the school is not the ideal space. Hartenstine said there are many factors that go into what he said, including a lack of volunteers, so a regional approach is best. Toward this end, Hartenstine said Oak Bluffs School is the best building to act as an emergency shelter. 

“The idea is that all of us, as an Island, are supposed to team up in these types of disasters,” Hartenstine said, although the number of people who can be housed at Oak Bluffs School falls into the range of 180 to 300 individuals. “We have a total inadequate supply. Each town tries to come up with a smaller version of it, but currently Aquinnah is the best suited because … the tribal building up there has recently been certified by Red Cross, and even though there are issues working with the towns and such, I think the tribe would let them use that, as well as a very strong [community emergency response team].”

Chappaquiddick is another community Hartenstine said is looking at emergency shelter options, because it is isolated. 

Hartenstine said West Tisbury should be focusing on developing “shelter in place” plans and making the community stronger by making the residents “much more resilient in their homes as well as in their neighborhood groups.” 

Warner acknowledged that many people can shelter in place, but there are also elderly residents who will need help, and “electrical needs,” such as dialysis care. She said while there are resources available to meet these needs on-Island, extreme weather conditions and power loss are more likely in the coming decade. “I just don’t want to see us make a mistake,” Warner said. 

“The school is a great idea if the town has the resources and the availability to both staff it as well as equip it,” Hartenstine replied. “Again, all of those components I mentioned should be a part of what the school board looks into. If those are affordable and available, then go for it.” 

Hartenstine said the points he made were not to “rule it out,” but to illuminate what a shelter would need. Warner asked Hartenstine to make a list of what West Tisbury School would need so it can be presented to the committee. 

The select board reached a consensus that although there is work to be done, they like the potential of the idea. Board member Jessica Miller added that the Howes House, which is also planned for renovations, is another possible option to have emergency shelter components added to it. 

In other business, the board unanimously approved sending letters stating the town’s intention to withdraw its home rule petition for 100 percent electrification. Ten municipalities, including West Tisbury and Aquinnah, were chosen to be part of a pilot program to limit or ban the use of fossil fuels in new construction. However, West Tisbury does not meet the affordable housing requirements to be able to participate in the pilot program. 

“We are far from meeting those requirements. We are at 1.9 percent of the required 10 percent of the specific kinds of housing that we would need to be able to do,” Warner said. She said getting off the list would allow another town or city to take West Tisbury’s place. “Some major players have stepped forward since the climate bill has passed, including Sommerville, Boston, Salem, and I think Worcester, and any one of those places is a larger entity than we are, and will be great to have in the pilot project because there’ll be more of a variety of uses in the project.” 

The board unanimously approved sending a letter of support for Vineyard Power and its acceptance into the Mass Save Community First program.