Tyrone, a rural borough of roughly 5,000 people, lies in what its former emergency management director Jay Young calls “the triangle of hell,” and officials there hope to use the local school district’s facilities as an emergency shelter from a trio of threats.
Young uses that term because the Blair County town contains a chemical factory that produces raw materials for pharmaceuticals, it sits next to Interstate 99, and a railroad track owned by Norfolk Southern cuts through it.
The chemical spill that occurred in early February after a Norfolk Southern train derailed near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border highlights the danger the tracks pose to Tyrone. The chemical factory had safety problems under its previous owner, Albemarle Corporation, including an explosion where three people were injured in 2017, and an incident where an employee was fatally sprayed with a chemical in 2006, according to OSHA records.
The factory’s safety record has improved under W.R. Grace, according to Mark Taylor, the director of Blair County’s emergency management department. He said in a phone interview that the factory has a safety plan in place and must comply with it.
The Norfolk Southern derailment made Tyrone Borough Manager Ardean Latchford nervous. “When these things happen, they’re definitely reminders that you need to have emergency plans in place,” he said.
To plan for that kind of a disaster, he has been coordinating with the Tyrone Area School District since August to use its facilities. The district’s schools have more combined space than Tyrone’s current shelter, a local church. Plus, in the event of flooding, it’s at a higher elevation, and is further away from the train tracks, Latchford explained.
And the district’s relationship with a busing company would facilitate transportation during a disaster, he added.
A school gym was previously set up as a shelter after a house explosion in 2021 in Tyrone killed one person and injured at least five others, Latchford said. But no one used it during the incident.
He said several local churches “jumped in” and helped people in need.
Schools aren’t usually used as emergency shelters in Blair County, Taylor noted.
Jordan Good, the Tyrone school district’s buildings and grounds administrator, elaborated, explaining that schools could not work as long-term shelter because students would eventually need them back. The lack of storage space would also complicate providing emergency supplies like blankets and food. The school district would have to rely on other entities, like the Red Cross, to supply such resources.
“We would more or less be, you know, opening doors, turning the lights on and providing them a space,” Good said.
Marley Grazier, a senior at Tyrone Area High School, said she welcomes her school being used as an emergency shelter.
“If it needs to happen, it needs to happen … whatever’s best for the town, ” she said. “I think we would all be OK with it, and it’s a really, really big place that there’s enough room for everyone.”
—Ashad Hajela, Report for America Corps Member and Rural Affairs Reporter