School Storm Shelter Debate in Oklahoma

MOORE, Okla. — In the aftermath of a devastating EF-5 twister that killed seven children at a Moore, Okla. elementary school, schools in the nation’s “tornado alley” are looking to establish safer facilities with required storm shelters or safe rooms.

Two Moore schools, Briarwood Elementary School and Plaza Towers Elementary School, were demolished by the tornado. And though the city is no stranger to devastating natural disasters, local and state officials are questioning why the schools were without safe rooms or facilities dedicated to withstanding severe weather.

According to Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma’s director of emergency management, only 100 of the state’s 1,752 public schools have storm shelters.

“Most of these projects have been anywhere between $600,000 to $1 million and have usually all been applied to brand new construction of new schools,” Ashwood said.

The destruction has incited much discussion on safe rooms and potential for legislation to mandate that every school be equipped with facilities to withstand a storm such as the one that killed 24 people and injured hundreds on May 20.

Unlike Alabama, which requires all new schools to be built with safe rooms, the state of Oklahoma currently does not require storm shelters in schools. However, Representative Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, is requesting that state legislators draft a bill that would permit a $500 million bond in order to construct storm shelters throughout Oklahoma. Approximately $400 million would be allocated to public schools while the remaining $100 million would fund storm shelters in group homes.

“We live in Tornado Alley and this will happen again,” Dorman said in a statement. “We need to provide some funding to help build storm shelters, especially in schools. I would hope the idea has bipartisan appeal.”

Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis is proposing a city ordinance that would require all new homes to be constructed with a storm shelter. However, the mayor vocalized the need for community healing before introducing such legislation.

"Clearly a disaster like this brings the topic of safe rooms to the forefront. However, at this time we need to focus on the needs of our community,” he said in a statement. “In the future, I know safe rooms, as well as other issues, will be discussed. As always, the goal of ordinances and policies is to make our community a safe and healthy place to live, work, learn and play."

Demolition of the remnants of Plaza Towers began May 30.