State Rep. Joe Dorman (D-Rush Springs) said the statewide figure demonstrates a greater problem because more than half a million students and teachers are without adequate protection from tornadoes.
“It’s shocking how many school districts are without shelters,” he said at a meeting last week, highlighting a report released the week of Sept. 23.
“I understand a school’s primary purpose is to educate kids and districts can only do so much with the current bonding system, but there is a great need for shelters at every school site. It’s reprehensible to think that every day the state fails to act on placing storm shelters in public schools, we put the lives of more than a half million children, teachers and school staff in peril.”
Attention to the issue was heightened after the May 20 tornado that claimed the lives of seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore.
According to the survey findings, 61.5 percent of Oklahoma’s 1,804 schools are without shelters or safe areas. Only 695 schools (38.5 percent) have some type of shelter, but 271 (15 percent) are designed to withstand 250-mile-per-hour winds.
As a result, the lawmaker also recently announced a petition drive seeking a statewide vote that, if approved, would allow a $500 million bond issue to pay for public storm shelters. Petition drive supporters must collect 160,000 signatures by December 17. The shelters would be funded with the state’s franchise tax collections.
An examination of the metro area’s 10 largest districts — Oklahoma City, Midwest City, Edmond, Putnam City, Moore, Norman, Mustang, Yukon, Choctaw and Deer Creek — show 212 of the 260 schools in those districts are without shelters or safe areas, leaving 141,611 students and school personnel without refuge from storms and tornadoes.
Specifically, the OKC district has five schools out of 84 with FEMAapproved shelters that can withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour. The May 20 tornado in southwest OKC and Moore reached wind speeds in excess of 200 mph. Fourteen years earlier, on May 3, 1999, winds from an F-5 tornado exceeded 300 mph.
A prepared statement from district spokeswoman Tierney Tinnin suggested additional shelters might be built in the future.
“The district certainly understands the concerns of many regarding the availability of safe rooms in schools after the storm tragedies in May. We are considering near-term and long-term plans for safe room construction for school board consideration,” the statement read.
School officials did not provide specific plans because the issue remains in the research phase, Tinnin said.
Suburban districts such as Putnam City, Midwest City and Yukon have severe problems. Midwest City has 26 schools, but only one currently has a storm shelter. In the Putnam City and Yukon districts, none of the schools have shelters, survey findings show.
Before the May 20 twister struck Moore, school officials there already were making plans to strengthen safety measures, spokesman Jimmy Fleming said. Two new elementary schools and a new junior high already were under construction and will include storm shelters when they open next fall. In addition, the two schools — Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary — destroyed in May will reopen next year with shelters.
Still, Moore will have 24 schools without shelters, leaving thousands of students without protection.
“Amazingly enough, the feedback among our patrons has been incredibly thankful for what we are doing,” Fleming said. “We would love to have a shelter in every school. As it is, FEMA will take care of 87 percent of the cost of the new shelters, leaving 13 percent that must be paid for by the district.”
Ironically, pre-May 20 safety measures also were aimed at protecting children from gun violence because of the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn.
“Before the tornado hit, we were looking at putting in bulletproof windows because of what happened there,” Fleming recalled. “We went from one safety precaution to another just like that.”
Constructing safe rooms for all public schools that currently have no shelter or refuge area would cost between $740 million and $880 million, according to Brian Orr, an engineer with SAFE Design Group, of Springfield, Mo. The firm has been responsible for much of the grant funding, design and construction of safe rooms in Missouri following the 2011 Joplin tornado.
“Our rule of thumb is that incorporating the construction of a safe room into a multipurpose construction project like a gym, cafeteria or band room will cost approximately 15 percent over typical construction cost,” he said.
Several school officials replied in the survey that plans are being made to build or renovate schools with storm shelters.
survey, conducted July 18 to Sept. 12, requested school district
superintendents and principals provide information about the number of
schools with shelters or safe areas and whether the shelters meet
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines.
Other survey information included the number of schools without shelters, future plans to build safe areas and whether the districts had the bonding capacity to fund those projects without outside help.