The May 20 tornado fuels calls for more schools to have shelters or safe rooms.
BY GREG HORTON
Strengthening school safety from Mother Nature’s deadly wrath quickly became a focal issue in the wake of the May 20 tornado that devastated parts of Central Oklahoma. The EF5 funnel cloud destroyed two Moore elementary schools — Briarwood and Plaza Towers — killing seven children at the latter location.
“Had we had a safe room, it would have been our procedure for our students to be there,” said Amy Simpson, Plaza Towers’ principal, at a tearful May 24 news conference. “My school will have a safe room when it’s rebuilt.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Briarwood Principal Shelley McMillin.
“What we normally do is enough, but [E]F5s are a different story,” she said. “Our hope is to have safe rooms for our school when it’s rebuilt. We would love for everyone to have one.”
The topic is likely to be front and center at this summer’s annual statewide education conference. State Superintendent Janet Barresi said the gathering will feature three sessions on safe schools, all off which will be open to the public.
“This has been a subject of discussion for some time,” she said. “Even before the tornado in Moore, we were touring various schools, witnessing firsthand how it can be done.”
Barresi cited the new Reagan Elementary School in Norman, where every pod is equipped with a safe room to hold 150 to 200 children.
Adding safe rooms or shelters to new construction is relatively simple, but retrofitting existing schools is costly. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides up to 75 percent of funding for such installation following a disaster.
It would be hard for small communities to afford the construction.
“The other 25 percent would need to be borne by the school district or community, but that 25 percent doesn’t just mean cash,” Barresi said.
In lieu of money, county commissioners and local organizations can provide in-kind donations. For retrofitting schools, that could take the form of equipment, moving earth and the like.
“These decisions will necessarily be in the hands of local school boards,” Barresi said. “The [state Department of Education] will be available to gather information, advise school boards on what resources are available and help with the safety plans required by FEMA to apply for the funds.”
A bond issue? State Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, has a different idea about how to pay for construction for storm shelters in all Oklahoma public schools: He has proposed a $500 million bond issue. Dorman said $400 million would be earmarked for schools, with the remaining $100 million to build safe rooms or shelters in single- and multifamily dwellings.
He said he has received positive support from both sides of the aisle in the state Legislature, but that the measure’s fate ultimately will be decided by next year’s leadership.
FEMA requires that an emergency shelter include 6 square feet per person. Using that number, local architectural designer Larry Dean Pickering estimated a total cost — including construction, materials and fees — of $630,000 for every 500 students.
Even if a bond issue doesn’t materialize, Barresi said communities and school boards need to consider safe rooms and shelters as part of their own bond initiatives.
“It would be hard for small communities to afford the construction,” she said, “but they can work with state and county offices in their area to create community shelters.”
The issue, she said, is top-priority. “There are many things that need to be discussed,” Barresi said. “For example, those safe rooms are built to withstand winds up to 200 miles per hour, but the recent tornado had winds that exceeded that mark. That means safe rooms and shelters are not a panacea.”
Nonprofit help The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management has installed safe rooms in approximately 100 public schools — most of them new construction projects, according to OEM director Albert Ashwood.
Retrofitting schools has not received priority attention by some, but last month’s tornadoes are likely to change that.
Last week, four state legislators announced the formation of a nonprofit, Shelter Oklahoma Schools. State Reps. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City; Mark McBride, R-Moore; Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City; and Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, formed the entity to help fund retrofitting.
Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson and Briarwood Principal Shelley McMillin
“We are all mourning the losses of those children and want to do more to protect our school-aged children moving forward,” said McBride, whose district was hardest hit. “Hiding in the interior of a building won’t cut it when faced with a tornado on the massive level of the one that hit Moore.”
Apache Corp., a Houston-based energy company with an extensive presence in Oklahoma, has pledged $500,000 to seed the nonprofit. Another $200,000 has come from Norman Chrysler Jeep Dodge.
Fund organizers said they are optimistic, especially since Apache has promised additional matching funds for every dollar donated, up to $500,000.
Morrissette said he hopes the company’s challenge will inspire more corporate donors.
“We need to get started as soon as possible,” he said. “I think we should start in Moore, south Oklahoma City and those areas, and then move southwest toward Lawton.”
In the meantime, McMillin, who has experienced nature’s devastation firsthand, hopes something happens to better ensure school safety.
“The school is the hub, and it revolves around the community,” she said. “We have a huge responsibility not only to the students but for the community.”
Additional reporting by Tim Farley