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Deadly tornados tore through several Oklahoma communities on May 19, 20 and 31, 2013. These are the stories of natural disaster and its aftermath, and of communities healing and recovering.

Following Moore Tornado Tragedy, Oklahoma Schools Make Storm Shelters A Priority

Architect Gary Armbruster of MA+ Architecture designed Canadian Valley Technology Center's new campus in El Reno.
Jacob McCleland
Architect Gary Armbruster of MA+ Architecture designed Canadian Valley Technology Center's new campus in El Reno.

Preschool students run tiny hands through a plastic tub of little blue beads that look like fish. They then scurry across the room to sing “The wheels on the bus” with their classmates.

It’s a bright, colorful, happy room here at the Canadian Valley Technical Center’s Child Development Center in El Reno, Oklahoma. And just a few steps down the hall, child care director Barbi Slimp opens the door to another room that’s just as cheerful.

“We have lots of soft furniture, and we have it set up in centers. And it’s a comfortable environment for the children,” Slimp says. “And they visit frequently so they’re not afraid to come in when it’s necessary.”

This room works as both a play room and a storm shelter. It’s one of five FEMA-certified shelters on the Canadian Valley campus.

“We have had to come in one time and the children didn’t even know what was happening. They just thought we were coming in to play and have a good time. But the teachers and parents had peace of mind that we had a safe place to be,” Slimp says.

A little more than a week after a tornado killed 7 students at an elementary school in nearby Moore in May 2013, another tornado destroyed Canadian Valley. Here in El Reno, the tornado ripped through the campus in the evening when few people were present. Nobody died at the school.

Gary Armbruster, a partner at MA+ Architecture in Oklahoma City, designed the rebuilt Canadian Valley campus. He wanted to make sure safe rooms and storms shelters are an everyday part of the learning environment.

The play room at the Canadian Valley Technology Center's day care doubles as a safe room.
Credit Jacob McCleland / KGOU
The play room at the Canadian Valley Technology Center's day care doubles as a safe room.

“With every one that we design we wanted it to be as usable and as flexible as possible,” Armbruster said.

Armbruster specializes in educational facilities, and he says demand for school shelters spiked after May 2013.

“Before that we might do one storm shelter every five years or less. Now I think we have at least five or six under construction right now,” Armbruster says.

Trade offs

Many school districts now include shelters or safe rooms when they construct new buildings, and it’s a big undertaking. Armbruster says a regular classroom costs about $175 per square foot. It costs about $100 per square more to fortify a class as a safe room.

Dan Sutter, an economist at Troy State University, says tornado fatalities in schools are rare. According to his research, there have been about 290 school deaths in the United States since 1880.

“One reason for that is that schools are engineered buildings. So they already are pretty well built, relative to houses and particularly mobile homes,” Sutter said.

Additionally, classes often aren’t in session when a tornado strikes.

Sutter says improving school safety by installing storm shelters is a question of marginal benefit.

“Given that you already have a pretty well-built school, what you’re really talking about now is taking a low probability of students being killed in a tornado and reducing it to zero or virtually close to zero,” Sutter said.

He says the small number of deaths that occur each year at schools mean that the cost per life saved is very high. In Oklahoma, for example, Sutter estimates the cost per life saved would be approximately $268 million.

In Oklahoma, school buildings generally are not funded through state appropriations. Instead they are funded locally, through property taxes or voter-approved bond issues. That means the installation of a storm shelter or safe room is decided locally by school boards and district voters, which Sutter thinks is good policy.

“If people wanted to pay extra to protect their children when they are at school, that’s entirely their call. And that’s one of the points where I really don’t like to criticize or tell people what they should or shouldn’t do,” Sutter said.

Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy CEO Joe Dorman disagrees. When he was a Democratic state representative in 2014, Dorman tried to pass legislation to create a statewide bond issue to help fund the construction of storm shelters, but it failed.

“When you factor in the cost of construction when you’re dealing with a bond issue, to upgrade that to a space that has safe areas from tornadoes, it’s not that much extra,” Dorman said. “The peace of mind and the assurance that you have it, it’s worth it.”

Dorman says Oklahoma’s legislature has done nothing else to provide money for school storm shelters. He says the problem with leaving it up to school districts is the requirement for a 60 percent vote to pass a bond issue.

“So you have many school districts that have a difficult time getting to that level. My home town of Rush Springs is a perfect example. It took multiple times presenting bond issues before a package was approved by the voters with a 60 percent margin,” Dorman said.

School districts look ahead

Many school districts have moved forward with shelters, especially in the state’s larger cities. Since 2013, Tulsa Public Schools have added FEMA-certified shelters or safe rooms in 8 of their 80 buildings. Five more are under construction now and will be complete by the fall.

Out of the 73 active schools in the Oklahoma City Public School district, 28 have safe rooms, with four more under construction. The district has built 27 safe room gyms to FEMA specifications since 2013.

Norman Public Schools has safe rooms in all 25 of its buildings, four of which were constructed after 2013 and follow FEMA’s guidelines.

All 35 buildings in the Moore Public Schools District will have FEMA-rated shelters when all current and future construction is complete.

Many smaller districts also include storm shelters in their plans, or have plans to do so.

Okeene Public Schools superintendent Gary Pittman cracks open the door to a dressing room underneath his school’s 1960s-era gym

Currently, students take shelter here in the event of severe weather. These dressing rooms don’t have the requirements to be considered a safe room, but it’s the safest place for students to take cover in this rural, northwestern Oklahoma school.

Pittman says the Moore tornado weighs heavily on him.

“You always look at the things that happen to be able to think about, what would we do in that same case?” Pittman said. “Where would we take the kids? Well obviously our safest place is the bottom of the gymnasium in the dressing rooms.”

Pittman says his school board will put a bond issue before voters next year. The proposal will call for a brand new gym that will have a storm shelter.

Support for this article was provided by the Weather Eye Award, an award given to distinguished local reporters by RiseLocal, a project of New America’s National Network.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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