The Norman Transcript

May 23, 2013

School administrators focused on the recovery, future

By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript

MOORE — Just days after Moore Public Schools suffered the loss of nine students and complete destruction of Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary schools, administrators take it a day at a time, as details continue to emerge from affected areas and plans for the future remain uncertain.

“Currently our priority is regaining connectivity and basic housekeeping,” said Moore Superintendent Susan Pierce. “We plan to figure out the relocation of Plaza Towers and Briarwood students’ 2013/2014 classes next week and hope to be able to publicize that information July 1.”

Public scrutiny concerning fortified shelters or basements in school facilites has generated discussion of state legislation, but Pierce said the school district’s construction plans through its recent bond issue must remain the same.

“Re-prioritizing bond dollars is not possible, they’re passed for very specific things,” Pierce said. “General obligation bond money may be flexible but Monday’s events won’t change our bond issue plan. Outfitting schools with shelters is certainly something we’ll look at, we’re hoping there may be FEMA money available for that purpose.”

Moore’s $126 million bond issue was passed Feb. 12 and will include the construction of two elementary schools and a junior high school.

Plaza Towers and Briarwood will be rebuilt through insurance proceeds, Pierce said.

Regarding the storm preparedness of each school, including the sites of the district’s fatalities, Pierce was resolute in her assessment that every teacher reacted as trained and did everything they could have done.

“We have a protocol that’s practiced several times a year, we know what to do and the kids know what to do, I believe the teachers followed that protocol, protected their children and accounted for their safety. Teachers were heroic in their efforts,” Pierce said.

Pierce emphasized that tornado precautions in the district are specific to each school site, depending upon the building’s configuration as determined by civil defense engineers.

“In one particular school an engineer might determine a hallway could become a wind tunnel and designate the bathroom as the safest area, others, the hallway may be the most interior and therefore safest place for students,” Pierce said.

Pierce was unable to identify which areas of Plaza Towers Elementary were designated shelter destinations.

“I was never in the school during a drill so I couldn’t say for certain exactly what parts of the school were identified for students to take shelter. Students are carefully prepared about how to follow instructions and what to expect if the school is hit, we talk to them about the sounds and sensations they may experience,” Pierce said.

“Even though 23,000 students were sheltered in place at their schools Monday it doesn’t make us feel better about the nine. We can’t second guess ourselves at this point, but we had to reassure each other that the protocol which has worked was followed that day.”

Pierce participated in the school district’s recovery during Moore’s first F5 tornado in 1999, and in comparing that ordeal to this she called Monday’s tornado a “worst case scenario”.

“Students weren’t in school in 99, we weren’t sheltering in place at schools, so we weren’t dealing with the care and safety of students, as they were home with families. There is no time that’s a good time for something like this to happen, but early afternoon dismissal time is the absolute worst time it could have happened,” Pierce said.

In the immediate aftermath, Pierce and her staff must focus on immediate needs and be proactive in providing what’s needed.

“Crisis and grief counseling will be a priority for students, teachers and families. We’re in some kind of mode right now where eventually we’ll hit a brick wall and will have to deal with this emotionally. Our hearts are broken and though we can fix brick and mortar we can’t fix the loss of life.”