Schools explore options for safety
School administrators and their school boards admit that student safety strongly supports the idea of safe rooms, especially in Tornado Alley.
But administrators also say achieving that goal is linked to finances, and money is the stumbling block.
Discussions about adding safe refuges to Oklahoma's schools gained ground in 2013 in the wake of a tornado that devastated Moore during a May school day, killing seven elementary students as it destroyed or severely damaged school facilities. It wasn't Moore's first brush with the worst of the worst Moore has been hit by three times by EF4 or EF5 tornadoes since 1999 but this storm took the lives of students who were in a building where everyone assumed they would be safe.
Moore Superintendent Robert Romines, who took over Moore's top leadership role this past summer, described the May storm as an "F5 grinder." Romines, who shared the district's problems with members of an Oklahoma House of Representatives interim study in October, said it wasn't that the district didn't expect storms: Tornadoes in 1999 and 2003 taught personnel that Oklahoma's weather is harsh. But those earlier storms happened at a time when parents could retrieve their children.
The May 2013 storm was fast, fierce and early. Despite that, district personnel were able to take evasive measures: Romines said that in schools where staff knew from which direction the storm was approaching, students were moved from the west walls to safer places.
"Twenty-three thousand students were protected that day by our staff," he said.
Moore has done what it could financially, after learning from the 1999 May tornado that crushed portions of the city, including schools. But even today, only two Moore schools have safe rooms: West Moore High and Kelly Elementary, both damaged by the 1999 twister. That was possible only because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stepped forward with funds to cover safe structures in those schools, multi-purpose rooms that have a daily function. Because it wasn't financially possible for the district to put such facilities everywhere, most schools in the city don't have them.