NORMAN — Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a week-long series focusing on storm shelters
A $200 per child investment could put tornado safe rooms in future Oklahoma schools. That $200 represents the extra cost — extrapolated over the number of children, teachers and staff protected — to build tornado safe classrooms in new school construction based on the Reagan Elementary model.
Safe rooms that double as classrooms at Norman’s newest elementary cost about $20,000 more per room than a traditional classroom.
“That’s not retrofit, that’s from the ground up,” said NPS Assistant Superintendent Roger Brown.
The school has six safe rooms, each of which will hold at least 100 children, teachers and staff. For that extra $120,000 total investment, children have immediate access to tornado shelters.
The shelters are multipurpose, serving as classrooms as well as offering protection if an intruder enters the school. Brown said the cost for a tornado shelter varies from project to project and retrofitting is usually more costly than including tornado safe rooms in new construction.
A key component in the design of Reagan is the proximity of the safe rooms, allowing children quick access in case of imminent danger.
“In an emergency, distance is key,” said NPS Superintendent Dr. Joe Siano.
Reagan is built like a hexagon with six pods housing various grade levels. Each pod has regular classrooms in a semi-circle around a central classroom. That central classroom is also the safe room and has FEMA approved doors, a bathroom and sink with a water faucet. The second FEMA approved door allows for an exit if one door is blocked.
Reinforced concrete walls, ceiling, and floor keep children, teachers and school staff safe in the windowless room at wind speeds up to 250 miles per hour.
The cost of a regular classroom in Reagan is $137,000. The cost of those specially designed classrooms doubling as tornado shelters is $157,000 each.
“We have six of these rooms in this building, so we spent about $120,000 more for this facility to have storm shelters,” Brown said.
Additionally, each pod can lock down in case of danger from an intruder. Many schools have channeled funding toward security measures because of the rash of school shootings. Features at Reagan serve double duty showing tornado safety doesn’t have to be sacrificed to keep children safe from intruder threats.
“You resolve these problems by the community coming together,” Siano said. “Security and safety measures are key.”
No one debates the value of a human life, but funding tornado shelters does cost money some schools say they just don’t have. Retrofitting can be particularly costly, depending on how a shelter project is conceived.
The type of shelter also affects the cost of the investment. The added cost of the Truman Primary gym was double the cost of the Reagan safe rooms at $247,608. The multi-use facility was built to comply with FEMA’s “Design and Construction Guidance for Community Shelters” and to withstand 250 mph winds. The total cost of the gym was $1,578,026, school officials said.
Siano said no dollars have been allocated by the state to allow schools to protect its children from the threats of severe storms or intruders. He believes a mechanism is needed to allow schools to create revenue for security and safety issues.
One problem is that state law limits dollars for capital improvements. The Building Fund Levy must be approved by a majority of voters. Schools can levy up to 5 mills which are paid through property taxes. Experts say this 5 mill limit falls far short of providing the money needed for new construction, remodeling, repairing, and other allowable expenditures including furniture, equipment and maintenance.
“We are also limited on what millages local communities can vote,” Siano said.
The Sinking Fund Levy allows each school district to borrow money if the bond is approved with a 60 percent, or super majority, vote. Even with super majority approval, the amount that can be levied through such a bond is limited and cannot exceed 10 percent of the school district’s total assessed valuation. For some districts, that means choosing between space for basic classrooms and safety features such as a safe room.
Norman is in a better position than many schools regarding its bonding capacity, but the law hurts many schools. Siano thinks a community should be able to decide how much it is willing to pay in property taxes to build local schools.
Regarding safety and security, Brown and Siano said staying safe is about more than taking shelter. Communication is key. In severe weather, that means having 2-way radios in addition to cell phones. School administrators must stay tuned to the weather radio and make sound decisions about whether to dismiss students early or shelter them within the school facility rather than risk buses on the road when a storm hits.
“Parents need to make decisions about their kids, but we will make a safe environment,” Siano said.
Planning is also vitally important.
“It’s about preparation,” Siano said.
Each facility is different and must be assessed to determine the safest measures during severe weather. In Norman, school plans for severe weather are reviewed by professionals at Weather Decision Technology.
“We submitted all of our school plans,” Brown said.
Norman is certified as a storm ready district and follows specific protocols during severe weather events. Moore also had protocols in place and those procedures undoubtedly saved lives, said Siano.
“Something worked right in the Moore schools,” Siano said of the high number of survivors in light of the extreme damage suffered by three Moore schools. “Something worked right. Could it have been better?”
Siano said the answer to that question is always, “yes,” but anyone looking at the damage — particularly to Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools — is likely to be amazed anyone survived.
And yet, Brown said, most of the people sheltering in those schools did survive without serious injury.