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June 30, 2013

Public buildings as shelters not a win-win

NORMAN — Editor, The Transcript:

Norman Fire Chief James Fullingim needs a duck.

He is correct to discourage the use of public buildings, even those with substantial or even safe room construction, as public storm shelters. But many will think he is heartless or cruel.

He might try an angry duck.

Oklahoma City Community College (then South Oklahoma City Junior College) opened in 1972 in a 65,000-square-foot underground concrete building. The only part visible above ground was about the size of a one car garage. Even nearby neighbors couldn’t believe an actual college was under that odd building in the middle of a 143-acre field.

Someone came up with the idea to promote this new, almost invisible, underground college as a public storm shelter. Sure, why not? It seemed like a win-win situation. The community would gain the equivalent of a giant cellar and the college would get needed identity and image in the community.

I was in charge of public relations and got the word out that SOCJC was a place to come when tornado warnings sounded in southwest Oklahoma City.

When storm sirens went off the first time, a few people came. The second time several, the third time many.

Before long, hundreds of frightened people rushed frantically to beat the storm. They parked randomly but as close as possible, often blocking driveways, leaving motors running, headlights on and doors open and ran to the nearest entry. They came dressed every way imaginable with kids in pajamas and carrying or dragging anxious pets, including dogs, cats, assorted birds and other critters, including at least one duck.

Soon when storms threatened, chaos conflicted with serving students. We tried to restrict the sudden visitors to one area, with limited success.

In two or three years, the college had outgrown its original space and work was well under way on the first major building, a three-story, dark red barn-looking building that quickly became a landmark at Southwest 74th and May Avenue.

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