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School storm protection is spotty in tornado zones

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - 6:58 pm

MOORE, Okla. — With its single-story design and cinder-block walls, Plaza Towers Elementary School may have seemed sturdy when it was built a couple of generations ago. But a powerful tornado revealed the building's lack of modern safety standards, destroying the school and killing seven students.

Unlike several other schools in the Oklahoma City area, Plaza Towers had no "safe room" in which students and teachers could seek protection from a twister.

The federal government offers money to schools in some states if they decide to install the reinforced rooms. But doing so can still be a daunting financial decision, requiring up to a $1 million for a single storm shelter that might never be needed. That dollars-and-cents reality has resulted in a patchwork of protection in tornado-prone areas — sometimes with tragic results.

In response to the tornado that plowed through Moore, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin announced Wednesday the creation of a state fund to accept donations for the construction of safe rooms, which are fortified by deep foundations, thick concrete walls and steel doors designed to withstand winds of 250 mph.

Separately, a member of the state House of Representatives proposed creating a $500 million bond issue to pay for storm shelters at public schools and in private homes across the state.

"From the public, it's been a huge outcry," said state Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat from rural Rush Springs, about 60 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. "We need to do something to require storm shelters in schools, especially in the vulnerable areas where there have been tornado outbreaks."

Oklahoma, which has averaged more than 50 tornadoes per year since record-keeping began in 1950, is in the heart of tornado alley. State officials asserted Wednesday that they had done more than their counterparts in any other state to encourage construction of community safe rooms and home storm shelters.

More than 100 Oklahoma schools have already received federal grant money for safe rooms, said the head of the state's emergency management agency.

Yet most schools still lack them. The reason: the cost, which can range from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million, depending on the size of the room. For some cash-strapped districts, that could equal the annual salary of nearly an entire school's teaching staff.

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants distributed by states can cover 75 percent of the cost of safe rooms, but local schools still must come up with the rest. Some school districts have issued bonds, backed by tax revenues, to ease the burden. But even that has limits.

The Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District, which teaches about 5,500 children northeast of Moore, recently used bond money to build safe rooms at five of its nine school buildings. Two additional schools are close enough to the improved buildings that students could run to the storm shelter with just a few minutes of warning. But two elementary schools are without modern safe rooms, said Superintendent Jim McCharen.

"Certainly, when we are able to get some type of assistance or do another school bond issue, both of those schools are slated to get additional classrooms" that can double as safe rooms, McCharen said.

In other places, school districts have built gymnasiums or music rooms that can serve as safe rooms during a storm.

A massive tornado destroyed six schools and badly damaged four others on May 22, 2011, in Joplin, Mo., though none of the buildings was occupied because it was a Sunday.

As Joplin began to rebuild, officials decided to put tornado shelters in all 13 of their schools, including those that were not destroyed. All of the shelters will double as gymnasiums. A 14th storm shelter being built at the football stadium will serve as a locker room. All are meant to protect students, staff and the public — remaining open 24 hours a day with space to house up to 15,000 people.

Joplin Superintendent C.J. Huff said the above-ground shelters will be built with reinforced steel and specially treated concrete designed to withstand an EF5 tornado like the twisters that hit Joplin and Moore.

Groundbreaking is set for this summer. Until the shelters are complete, students will be sent to interior rooms such as restrooms, windowless classrooms and closets — but not hallways, which Huff said can become "wind tunnels" for flying projectiles.

The Joplin storm shelters are among 148 that Missouri has helped finance with $155 million of federal money since 2004, according to figures provided Wednesday by the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

For former Kansas Treasurer Dennis McKinney, the images that emerged from Oklahoma this week recalled the devastating tornado that leveled his hometown of Greensburg in 2007. That twister killed 11 people and destroyed nearly every structure in the southwest Kansas community, including the elementary and high schools.

The Greensburg district rebuilt one combined school and incorporated a FEMA-approved storm shelter in the locker rooms between gymnasiums.

McKinney, who was minority leader in the state House at the time, pushed a budget provision in 2008 requiring all school districts to evaluate their safety measures. But it's not clear precisely how many took steps to improve facilities. However, nearly every school built in Kansas in the past 10 to 15 years included a safe room as part of the design, said Dale Dennis, deputy education commissioner in Kansas.

McKinney said the Oklahoma tornado should prompt school officials everywhere to rethink the safety of their facilities, especially elementary schools.

"There is no reason, with the technology and resources available, to have 10 or 20 kids killed by a tornado in a school," McKinney said. "If they are telling students to take shelter in a hallway, that tells you that it is not safe."