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July 20, 2013

Tornado safety is a high priority as schools design safe rooms

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.

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