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Making the case for storm shelters

Joe Dorman said the EF5 tornado that slammed Moore in May 2013 with deadly consequences bluntly reminded him why he is fighting for storm shelters: Tornadoes kill people.
 
Dorman, a Rush Springs Democrat who represents District 65 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said he has been working on the storm shelter issue  implementing a funding mechanism to get shelters into schools and other places they are needed  for years. His initial prompt was a tornado that hit Chickasha in 2011 "and one of my constituents died for a lack of a shelter in the mobile home park where she lived.
 
"It all flooded back, when we saw what happened to those schools and the kids who passed away (in Moore). They had no safe and secure area that they could be safe in while they were in school. It brought to mind: We need shelters in schools, to protect students and staff members."
 
Dorman said he tried to get a storm shelter bill heard in the final week of the 2013 legislative session, but was unsuccessful then, and in a request he made to expand a later special session to include storm shelters. Undeterred, Dorman sought an interim study on storm shelters, which was combined with a school safety interim study and heard by Rep. Ann Coody's House Common Education Committee in late October.
 
According to a study that Dorman commissioned for his interim study, the majority of Oklahoma school districts don't have shelters  or the means to build them  of sufficient strength to provide students the best protection (FEMA defines a safe room as a facility that provides near absolute protection from extreme weather).
 
"I was completely surprised," Dorman said of the data revealed by the study conducted by Bar None Consulting and analyzed by SAFE Design Group of Springfield, Mo., an engineering and architectural firm that specializes in storm shelters. "Over 500,000 Oklahomans are unprotected. They are not safe in school facilities. There are 11,000 school facilities that have no source of safety."
 
The 2013 study solicited responses from superintendents, principals and other top school administrators in 517 public school districts in Oklahoma's 77 counties. The study received 100 percent participation from the public schools identified by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, Dorman noted. What the survey revealed for the 1,804 schools in Oklahoma's 517 public school districts:
 
• 695 schools (38.5 percent) have a shelter or safe area for their students. But only 271 of those schools (15 percent of the total) have storm shelters that are FEMA rated, meaning built to FEMA or other specifications to withstand winds up to 250 mph (an EF5 tornado).
 
• 1,109 schools have no refuge or safe area for students and staff, a number that represents 61.5 percent of Oklahoma public schools. That leaves 506,000 students and school faculty/staff unprotected in tornadoes, Dorman said.
 
• Most schools in the state's population centers, including Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Lawton, have no safe rooms or storm shelters.
 
• The estimated cost of providing school students and faculty/staff with safe rooms in the 1,109 Oklahoma public schools without them is $740 million to $880 million, according to a cost analysis by SAFE Design Group.
 
• Architects and designers say the most cost-effective method of adding safe rooms to schools is via a multi-purpose room, something that serves an everyday need (a gym or library, for example) but doubles a safe room when needed. Building such multi-purpose facilities would add 10-15 percent to construction costs. SAFE Design Group used a typical elementary gymnasium as an example: Standard construction would be $135 to $150 per square foot, or $960,000. A FEMA-rated gymnasium would be $145 to $185 per square foot, or up to $1.11 million.
 
• Superintendents and other school administrators say there is a need for storm shelters, but finding the money to cover that cost is difficult.
 
"Most school districts don't have the bonding capacity to do any more construction," Dorman acknowledged, saying that for those districts that are at the maximum end of their bonded capacity, "You still have to wait."
 
That's one of the reasons Dorman worked with other House members to submit the issue to an interim study, often viewed as the forerunner of successful legislation in the coming session. Dorman also noted the October interim study has a wider application than weather.
 
"The main focus has been on storm shelters, but it also allows for security," he said, explaining that should an "active shooter" approach a school  something he said had been the most pressing educational safety concern before May's tornado  personnel need a place for students and teachers, "not just locking doors to classrooms and turning lights out."
 
But Dorman predicted tornadoes will continue to be the major safety need in the nation's South and mid-section.
 
"Even in the recent (fall) tornadoes in the Midwest, two schools were hit," he said. "We were fortunate it was on a Sunday."

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