By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Private money will save the lives of Oklahoma schoolchildren, state legislators said Thursday at a press conference at the Capitol.
Lawmakers joined forces to create a nonprofit, Shelter Oklahoma Schools, with the mission of building shelters in every Oklahoma school, starting with Moore and other areas where the highest number of tornadoes track.
Apache Corporation, which had already pledged $500,000 to build school shelters, issued a corporate challenge Thursday, offering up to $500,000 in additional matching funds for every dollar donated by other companies and individuals.
“I’m a parent and a grandparent and I’ve never lost a child or a grandchild, but I’m sure the agony is terrible,” Apache CEO G. Steven Farris said.
Working from the same idea of protecting schoolchildren, Norman Chrysler Jeep Dodge started the Plaza Towers Memorial fund with $200,000 seed money. Now the two groups have merged under Shelter Oklahoma Schools.
“This is such an important mission for us,” said John Hunt, of Norman Chysler Jeep Dodge. “Once we learned of the tragedy in Moore, we wanted to help. We thought the best route would be to start a fund to get shelters into schools.”
Moore School Superintendent Susan Pierce said the district is taking proactive steps in the plan for rebuilding Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools. Both schools were destroyed in the May 20 tornado. Another Moore school, Highland East Junior High, was heavily damaged by the EF-5 tornado.
Seven children died at Plaza Towers, killed by falling debris and collapsing walls.
Approximately 94 percent of Oklahoma schools do not have tornado shelters. Gov. Mary Fallin said last week that only 100 of Oklahoma’s 1,752 public schools have storm shelters.
The May 20 tornado killed 24 people and injured at least 100 others in the Moore and Oklahoma City area as it cut a 17-mile long path that started in Newcastle and ended at Lake Stanley Draper. Fourteen miles of that destructive path were through Moore.
The 2013 tornado followed closely along the track of another deadly twister that hit Moore on May 3, 1999. The ’99 tornado tore through Bridgecreek, Moore, south Oklahoma City, Del City and Tinker Air Force base, then ended in Midwest City, taking 36 lives. It hit later in the day, after schools had dismissed.
Because Westmoore High School and Kelly Elementary were affected by the 1999 tornado, they now have safe hallways with reinforced walls funded by FEMA where children can shelter, Pierce said.
But three of Moore’s newest elementary schools — Heritage Trails, Oakridge and Wayland Bonds — did not have the funding to include safe rooms.
On Feb. 12, Moore voters approved a $126.4 million bond to build two elementary schools and a junior high in addition to other school improvements. It is the largest bond issue in the district’s history.
Those plans did not include storm shelters, but Thursday, Pierce said Moore will alter plans for the two new elementary schools.
Pierce did not say if plans for the junior high will be altered.
Shelter Oklahoma Schools funding has not been designated to specific schools at this time. The lawmakers who started the nonprofit said one size does not fit all and shelters must fit the needs of each school on a case-by-case basis.
Shelter Oklahoma Schools is a cooperative venture between Oklahoma business leaders and several members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Reps. Mark McBride, Jon Echols, Richard Morrissette, Eric Proctor and John Trebilcock formed the nonprofit.
McBride, R-Moore, said the idea was born when legislators, moved by the loss of lives at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore during the May 20 tornado, started talking about how to help. When representatives of Apache approached them and offered $500,000 to help with the tornado tragedy, that first half-million became the seed money for the nonprofit.
“I’ve lost a child and my heart goes out to these people,” McBride said. “My son was 21. I don’t know what it would be like to lose a third-grader or a fifth-grader.”
Echols said the effort was bipartisan and not political.
The legislators discovered that another group of business individuals were working on the same issue and the two groups combined.
“We’ve now merged together,” Echols said. “This is a large undertaking that’s going to take a large response.”
Both entities began with the goal of placing a storm shelter in every school in Oklahoma. Echols said once both groups knew about each other, the best decision was to team up to get the mission accomplished.
“When something like this happens in a state like this where we do business, it’s very easy to come forward,” Farris said. “I lived in Oklahoma for about 20 years. I’ve had my share of storms, and it’s a traumatic thing.”
Several agencies already have stepped up, some donating money, others offering goods and services including labor and materials for construction. Oklahoma City University’s School of Law and Crowe and Dunlevy have offered legal expertise. In the short time the organization has been made known to the public, there has been a tremendous response, legislators said.
Donations can be made to the Shelter Oklahoma Schools fund at shelteroklahomaschools.org.