The Norman Transcript

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May 25, 2013

Debate over mandatory school shelters looms

NORMAN — When it comes to making sure that school kids have access to tornado shelters, Oklahoma’s state government has kept its distance.

The state does not require public schools to install shelters, does not keep track of which schools have them, has provided limited state tax dollars to build them and has not assessed the cost of installing them statewide.

The state’s minimal intervention in school shelter issues reflects a concern over costs and a long tradition of local control. It’s been left up to local school districts to decide where shelters will be located and how to pay for them.

Many state officials say they want to keep it that way. But as people across the country ponder the devastation caused by Monday’s EF5 tornado in Moore, including the destruction of Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools, some have begun asking whether more state involvement is needed.

“We’re going to have a discussion about that once we get through the some of the initial disaster recovery efforts,” Gov. Mary Fallin told reporters Thursday. “I think it is important for the state to talk about that.”

Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, acknowledged that tight school construction budgets would make it difficult to finance installation of shelters at all schools. But he said it makes sense for Oklahoma and other tornado-prone states to begin requiring them in new school buildings.

“I believe it would be a prudent thing to do,” said Kiesling, a wind engineering research professor at Texas Tech University. “The added cost of providing safety in a new building is relatively small.”

Safe rooms are concrete-reinforced enclosures designed to withstand tornado-force winds. They can be incorporated into construction of new schools or built adjacent to existing schools. They can double as gymnasiums or multi-purpose rooms.

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