The Norman Transcript

News Features

June 18, 2013

Schools need better shelters during storms



In accordance with Edwards’ recommendations, firsthand accounts indicate students at Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools were moved to the most enclosed areas of their schools — hallways and bathrooms — and crouched down against walls.

In her interview with an Oklahoma City newspaper reporter, Plaza Towers second-grade teacher Shelly Calvert said students — including the third-grade class that tragically suffered fatalities — were in the gym for class activities the afternoon of May 20 and were moved to the hallways immediately when warnings were issued.

Calvert’s account indicated that students were crouched against the wall according to protocol and said the wall collapsed when a south-facing door and the roof overhead was ripped off.

“There is no guaranteed ‘safe place’ in a tornado,” Edwards writes. “But ideally the lowest possible level is the safest ... to determine structural strength of upper floors, professional architectural engineers with wind engineering experience must be consulted.”

Moore Superintendent Susan Pierce said this type of evaluation was standard for the district, with professionals identifying the safest parts of schools for sheltering and site administrators running drills multiple times a year to ensure fast response time.

“I found that yearround preparation was common, as was professional review,” Hoekstra said. “My greatest concern once the research was over was for local forecasting offices to reach out and develop stronger relationships with schools to produce the best plans — superintendents shouldn’t be expected to be authorities or experts on weather.”

Ultimately, Hoekstra’s and Edwards’ expert opinions on ideal school storm procedures reached similar conclusions.

“Builders can line with concrete enough interior rooms in the school to create a series of safe rooms to hold students, safe rooms aren’t just for houses,” Edwards writes. “They can also be retrofitted into existing facilities, but that is usually much costlier than building them in new construction ... such measures won’t come cheap — but can ultimately save lives.”

“There are few tornado shelters for schools in the Oklahoma area and even fewer below-ground shelters,” Hoekstra said. “Sheltering is definitely something that schools need to change.”

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