NORMAN — Five children and a teacher died in a tornado at Camel Creek school in Oklahoma City on Nov. 19, 1930.
Those deaths were not forgotten by area residents, and when the Western Heights school district had another close brush with a tornado on May 3, 1999, the school board decided to do something about it.
School Superintendent Joe Kitchens, who retired on June 30, said the 1999 tornado was a “galvanizing event” for the small independent school district on the southwest side of Oklahoma City.
“The board decided that anytime there was a significant improvement, we would go ahead and make the facility tornado safe — that would become a high priority,” Kitchens said. “Each time Moore has been hit, the storms have been within four or five miles from the (Western Heights) school. In the ‘30s, before Western Heights, there were children killed at a little school, Camel Creek.”
Norman architects, Boynton Williams & Associates worked with Western Heights to put safe rooms in the new Ninth Grade Center, Bridgestone Intermediate, Council Grove Elementary, John Glenn Elementary, WH Middle School, and Winds West Elementary.
“All the new buildings and elementary schools with additions have safe rooms,” said Clarence Williams, principal architect at BWA.
The district received no FEMA funding for the safe rooms.
“Our board has always talked about how resolved the community was not to let an incident like that happen,” Kitchens said. “They’ve been very supportive to make the schools as safe as possible.”
The school board developed a 10-year plan to include safe rooms in all new construction.
“The ninth-grade center is a two-story building and the whole bottom floor is a safe room,” Kitchens said. Because that center is adjacent to the high school, it serves that population as well.
On May 20, all of the safe rooms were used when the tornado swept through nearby Moore.
“Within six minutes, we had everybody within tornado safe facilities except one school,” Kitchens said.
That school is windowless and children did take cover, but a designed safe room has not been completed for that school yet.
“That’s the only one, and our board won’t rest until that’s taken care of,” Kitchens said.
That school was left for last because it was already safer than other school facilities.
Despite the lack of FEMA assistance, the Western Heights community has never turned a bond issue down.
“They’ve always been real supportive,” Kitchens said. “I can’t tell you how good it made me feel to see such a horrible storm but to know you can get your kids into a safe position. There’s a peace of mind we didn’t have when we started. We live in Oklahoma, and we all know that means storms. We all need to be proactive.”
Williams said many schools build safe rooms without FEMA money. Those schools use the FEMA-approved door system and hardware as well as FEMA-approved reinforcements. Other, more costly items required for FEMA funding are not included when schools pay the full bill, however. The community has prioritized the funding anyway.
“There is a very strong desire to improve the facilities — there has been for the last 15 years,” Kitchens said. “They have set up a level of tax commitment that they will support, and they’ve held steady for that.”
Kitchens said more education is needed so all of the parents understand the schools are tornado safe.
“One of the things that is going to have to happen is the public doesn’t realize our schools are safe. The public wants to come and get their children. Why would you do that if you’re in a tornado-safe condition?” Kitchens said.
Once safe rooms are locked down, school officials can’t open the doors until the tornado has passed. If the doors are opened during a tornado, safety is compromised. Additionally, school safe rooms are not public facilities — they are designed for the children, teachers and staff who are on site, Kitchens said.
Williams also emphasized the importance of locked, FEMA-approved doors on tornado safe rooms. He said the FEMA-approved triple deadbolt locking system must be secured when a tornado hits.
“There are only two hardware systems that have passed the tests and are being used today,” Williams said.
Reinforced hallways are safer than those that are not reinforced, but doors are key to safety in an EF-4 or EF-5 tornado.
“They (the hallways) need the doors,” Williams said.
BWA has completed 90 safe rooms in Oklahoma, most of them in schools. Only a handful of those are FEMA funded. The firm has been doing business in Norman for 39 years.
An April 14, 2011, an EF-3 tornado killed two people, damaged homes and destroyed a school in Tushka, a small community near Atoka. Many members of the community crowded into a safe room adjacent to the pre-school, while others crowded into a below-ground public shelter with dirt floors and steel doors, according to media reports. The two people who died were not in those shelters.
Today, the rebuilt Tushka school has four saferooms, one in each wing. BWA worked on that project. The Tushka school safe rooms were FEMA-funded.
But FEMA funding comes mostly after devastation rather than before. And FEMA safe room guidelines are built to hurricane specifications rather than tornado specs — a fact that makes those facilities more expensive than they have to be.
Schools building tornado shelters without FEMA funding follow FEMA guidelines for structural safety and doors, but may leave other, costly elements out of project plans.
Currently, BWA is working with Woodward to put safe rooms in the town’s schools including Cedar Heights Elementary, Highland Parks Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, the high school and the middle school.
Woodward holds the state record for the deadliest tornado since 1882 with over 100 fatalities during an April 9, 1947 EF-5 tornado.
Safe rooms serve multiple purposes, said Williams. In Woodward they will double as classrooms. Other uses of safe rooms include band rooms, cafeterias, gymnasiums and locker rooms.