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June 20, 2013

May tornadoes prompt heightened scrutiny of school shelters

NORMAN — Barely a month since their occurrence, the tornadic events of May have joined the ranks of high-profile school emergencies as a source of heightened scrutiny on schools’ emergency preparedness.

Events like the Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, or the more local April 2012 tornado in Norman, have dramatically altered priorities in school design and district procedures, with May making certified storm shelters in schools a new concern.

“What gets put in school

facilities is reflective of priorities at the time,” Superintendent Joe Siano said. “In 1990, I was the principal of a brand new school and it didn’t have a secured vestibule entry or storm shelters — it just wasn’t a priority to communities at that time. For a new school now, that would be unthinkable.”

In light of the tragic loss of life at Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary, public discourse has focused on reprioritizing the installment or addition of certified storm shelters in school facilities as an urgent initiative, and — as with so many other school initiatives — the deciding factor will be funds.

“From a construction standpoint, the Norman district will have to either incorporate storm-fortified rooms into new construction projects or build additions onto older schools,” Siano said. “If there’s a major revenue infusion from the state, the Norman district has the infrastructure to begin work within weeks of receiving it. Otherwise, we have to build storm shelter projects into our overall capital improvement plans, which include other priorities. We can’t forego standing priorities like instructional facilities or secured vestibule entries for storm shelters in capital projects.”

The possibility of allocating $500 million in state funds for school storm shelters has been discussed in the Legislature, but given the high pricetag of a FEMA-certified shelter, Siano said this sum would likely be far too little to make a significant statewide impact.

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