NORMAN — Ninety-four percent of Oklahoma schools do not have tornado shelters, according to Gov. Mary Fallin, even though at least one weather expert says they should be standard.
With two Moore schools destroyed in Monday’s EF-5 tornado — and seven school children dead — the need for safe rooms has entered the state and national debate.
At a press conference Thursday, Fallin said 100 Oklahoma schools have tornado safe rooms or shelters, but the state has 1,752 public schools.
The governor was asked whether she would support legislation to require tornado shelters in all new school buildings.
“I think it is important for the state to talk about that,” Fallin said, adding that the state should gather information about which schools have shelters and what is needed.
Meteorologist Mike Smith, senior vice president of AccuWeather, said all schools need places to shelter during severe storms.
“Whether you call it a safe room, a storm shelter or an area with reinforced construction, schools should have a place for teachers, students and staff to congregate during a tornado or high-wind event,” Smith said.
On Thursday, Rep. Mark McBride announced that Apache Corporation has donated $500,000 to pay for safe rooms for schools. The money is designated for shelters at Moore schools.
McBride and other legislators who are forming a nonprofit to handle the funds hope the money will seed a bigger fund to build shelters in schools throughout the state.
Reps. Jon Echols and Richard Morrissette are helping organize the fund.
Moore teacher Kaye Davis said private funding will be the most efficient way to fund safe rooms in her district. She said she does not support state mandates that require districts to build safe rooms. Too often, she said, mandates go unfunded.
“In the situation where a state mandate exists, if the funding is not available, it could slow down the construction of a badly needed school,” she said. “Many of our schools are overcrowded now.”
Moore voters recently agreed to a $126.4 million bond issue to build a new middle school and two elementary schools. It’s unclear if those schools have been designed or if plans include safe rooms.
“We want all schools to have safe rooms, yes,” said Davis, who teaches special education at Apple Creek Elementary. “But in all districts, it’s not going to be possible unless money comes from some outside source.”
Smith, a meteorologist, said students should be in a reinforced area when severe storms are approaching.
Smith said Wichita, Kan., where AccuWeather is based, is a leader in building shelters in schools.
The city passed a $45 million bond in 2008 to put shelters in 60 schools, he said. This includes retrofitting existing schools as well as new construction.
“Some are completed,” he said. “Some are still under way.”
The city’s school district was the first in the country to build a FEMA-approved storm shelter in a school, the Wichita Eagle reported. In addition to bond money, the district has used grants from FEMA to fortify its schools.