By Debby Woodin
After seven children died last week in a Moore, Okla., elementary school, and 17 others also were killed, state, school and community leaders are renewing efforts to get more tornado shelters in schools and homes.
While everyone supports the need for more shelters, there is disagreement on ways to do it.
It is a debate close to the heart of many in Joplin after the 2011 tornado.
So far, only one state mandates storm shelters in new schools — although that could be changing soon — and no state or city in the tornado-prone Midwest and South requires them for homeowners.
Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis wants to be the first.
He reopened the debate last week when he proposed a city ordinance that would require all new homes in Moore to have storm shelters after the EF-5 tornado hit the town on May 20.
Although that is his goal, he acknowledged that realistically, city officials may be able to require the shelters only in new assisted living centers and apartment complexes because of costs.
Lewis said contractors will be part of the conversation with the Moore City Council to see whether a broader requirement is possible, given that storm shelters can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the size and type.
“We want to be competitive,” he said. “We don’t want to price them out of the market.”
Asked at a news conference if a similar mandate might be considered statewide, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin shot down the suggestion.
“We aren’t going to require people to do anything, but if someone chooses to do that, we certainly encourage it,” Fallin said.
Speaking in Joplin last week on the second anniversary of the May 22, 2011, tornado, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also addressed the debate, saying he, too, opposes any kind of state mandate. He said he prefers the approach of granting money as it becomes available to subsidize storm shelter costs, rather than enacting laws requiring that storm shelters be built.
‘Best thing ever’
The same year that the EF-5 tornado hit Joplin, damaging or destroying more than 8,000 homes and businesses, Oklahoma announced its SoonerSafe incentive program. The state offers federally financed rebates of up to $2,000 to residents who install storm shelters, but the demand was greater than the cash. The state developed a lottery-style drawing to select rebate winners from among the thousands of online applications.
Sherry and Larry Wells finally won the lottery this year, and a contractor recently finished installing their $4,800 concrete bunker beneath the slab of their garage. About three weeks later, they said that shelter saved their lives when the Moore tornado tore through their neighborhood.
The project was so freshly finished that the couple hadn’t even submitted their rebate forms when the tornado hit, ripping away everything else of their home.
Larry Wells believes shelters should be mandatory in new homes, adding: “It’s the best thing ever.”
A little more than 3,000 residential storm shelters were registered in Moore, a city of about 56,000 that had been hit by large tornadoes before, said community development director Elizabeth Jones.
Since the Moore tornado, a state fund has been set up to take in donations for a grant program to construct safe rooms, and an Oklahoma legislator has proposed a statewide $500 million bond issue to pay for the construction of shelters at schools that do not have them as well as in homes.
Joplin city leaders were asking similar questions two years ago. While the Joplin City Council approved code and policy changes designed to make homes more storm-resistant, it opted against a safe room requirement, said City Manager Mark Rohr.
“I think there’s a viewpoint that that’s a personal determination to make,” Rohr said.
Hundreds of homeowners have added shelters on their own, spending their own money. But only about 300 shelters have been registered with either the city of Joplin or Jasper County.
And the city has awarded some grant money from the Joplin Tornado First Response Fund for construction of shelters for vulnerable locations. Ozark Center’s Turnaround Ranch received $30,000. Community Support Services/Jasper County Sheltered Facilities received $15,000 for a residential safe room for disabled residents.
A proposal also has been submitted by the city to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to obtain the dozens of concrete shelters FEMA installed at temporary living sites and schools after the storm. City officials have said that if FEMA agrees, the shelters would not be available until the housing sites and temporary schools are closed.
Other communities, too, are looking at what steps they can take, and trying to balance the benefits and the costs.
A Wichita, Kan., ordinance adopted in 1994 requires storm shelters in existing mobile home parks with at least 20 homes and in new parks with at least 10 mobile homes. And a 2000 ordinance adopted in Wichita’s home of Sedgwick County requires storm shelters for all new mobile home parks with space for at least 10 homes.
However, shelters are not required for private residences.
Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association and a retired civil engineering professor at Texas Tech University, believes that is the right approach.
“Any time a governmental entity says ‘thou shalt’ and tries to take an individual decision into the public domain, it’s going to get pushback, and you’re also going to raise the cost of things,” he said.
Meanwhile, only Alabama requires that new schools be built with safe rooms, according to the National Storm Shelter Association. But similar mandates could come in the future.
Kiesling said a draft of the 2015 International Building Code calls for new schools to have storm-safe areas. Many states and cities adopt those building codes into their own laws and ordinances.
Although several schools in the Oklahoma City area have safe rooms, the two elementary schools that were destroyed in the May 20 tornado in Moore did not have them.
In Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas — having witnessed what happened to Joplin schools, and having seen how the long hallways became wind tunnels in the 2011 tornado — educators aren’t waiting on any mandate. Many are putting in shelters now and offering some of them as community safe rooms, too.
While he was in Joplin last week, Nixon toured some of the schools that are being rebuilt with safe rooms.
“It will be a significant day when those kids walk into the new schools,” the governor said of Joplin’s recovery and the community safe rooms being built at the schools.
With grant money and other funds, all of Joplin’s public schools will soon have shelters, except North Middle School, which has a basement, and South Middle School, which is considered tornado-resistant because it is a bermed building.
Safe rooms in most of the Joplin schools are being designed as gymnasiums with steel and concrete projected to withstand wind speeds of up to 250 mph.
For now, students in vulnerable schools still take shelter in bathrooms and other interior rooms.
Superintendent C.J. Huff said construction is on track to open two of the rebuilt schools on Jan. 1. Irving Elementary, which was destroyed in the tornado, has moved from 26th Street and Wall Avenue to the 2700 block of McClelland Boulevard. Students in what was the Emerson Elementary district also will attend the new Irving school because of the damage that school sustained in the tornado.
The rebuilt East Middle School on East 20th Street, with the addition of a new elementary school, Soaring Heights, also is expected to be finished and open with the Jan. 1 term, Huff said. Soaring Heights will house students from Duenweg and Duquesne.
District officials also are looking to begin construction of safe rooms at other elementary schools and at Junge Field now that school is out for the year. Construction plans for the addition of safe rooms at the schools and the stadium are being reviewed by FEMA and the State Emergency Management Agency to ensure they meet storm-resistant standards. After that review is completed, construction can begin.
There is still a long way to go on the rebuilding of Joplin High School and Franklin Technology Center and its safe room, Huff said. Plans call for that school to be finished in time for the start of the 2014-15 school year.
Addressing school safety issues is not confined solely to Joplin.
Webb City, Sarcoxie, Cassville, Neosho, Diamond, McDonald County and Avilla, and Baxter Springs and Galena, Kan., are just some of the area school districts that have safe room projects in the works or are considering them. Some already had projects in mind before the Joplin tornado. A community shelter at Jasper schools that can house up to 1,600 people was ready for use this storm season. And Carthage also is studying possibilities for its school district.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.