The Norman Transcript

June 21, 2013

Schools think outside the FEMA-funded box when building tornado shelters

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — For the past 23 years, Edmond Public Schools has added tornado shelters to every new school building project. None of those shelters have been built with Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars.

FEMA funding is great when it’s available, but some FEMA requirements for federally funded shelters add to the cost without contributing to structural safety, school officials and architects said.

“The movement to build safe rooms in Edmond schools began in 1990,” said Dr. David Goin, Edmond Schools superintendent.

Goin served as principal of McKinley Elementary in Norman before moving to Edmond. However, he didn’t start out at Norman.

“I was principal at Plaza Towers (elementary in Moore) between 1982 through 1986,” Goin said.

Edmond has 94 designed storm shelters in 10 school facilities, and an additional nine facilities have underground or partially underground areas that serve as tornado shelters.

“We still have our challenges,” Goin said, noting that schools built before 1990 do not have safe rooms.

Edmond, Norman, Owasso and Piedmont are among Oklahoma schools that have built tornado safe rooms without FEMA funding. There are actually more Oklahoma schools with safe rooms than the governor, the state emergency manager or many people might think.

“When you’re building it into original construction, it does add to the cost,” Goin said. “But it has been something we have viewed as affordable and important.”

Architect Sean Willis with The Stacy Group was part of the team that worked on several Edmond projects as well as Reagan Elementary, 1601 24th Ave. SE in Norman. The Stacy Group also designed safe rooms in Owasso and Piedmont.

“FEMA guidelines are very strict and there are a bunch of extra guidelines you have to get through to get FEMA,” Willis said.

To receive FEMA dollars, plans must include added costs that don’t increase structural safety such as battery backup for lighting and HVAC, Willis said.

“We haven’t had a district in the state choose to go that route of the battery backup,” Willis said.

Tornadoes tend to be short-lived, Willis said. Additionally, firefighters and police respond to schools first after a tornado, so there’s no real need for ventilation and battery backup for lights, especially in an above-ground shelter.

While all of the schools and architectural firms interviewed said FEMA structural guidelines are followed in building school safe rooms, added costs that don’t contribute to safety are eliminated when FEMA funding isn’t present.

Kansas community builds large shelters: Jefferson Elementary in Wichita, Kan., was hit by a tornado April 5, 1999, and became the first school to have a FEMA-funded storm shelter in 2002. Today, 69 Wichita schools have a combined total of 77 shelters, with eight additional safe rooms currently under construction.

Kenton Cox, architect and engineer with SJCF architects was part of the team that designed Wichita’s shelters.

“We were able to partner with FEMA to build our first shelter at Jefferson Elementary School,” Cox said. “Since there’s 99 schools, that’s a lot of shelters.”

All of Wichita’s schools are either FEMA-certified designed shelters or follow FEMA structural guidelines.

“When we don’t get our FEMA funding, we also don’t put those extra things that don’t impact safety, but that’s a fraction of the cost,” Cox said.

Wichita always tries for FEMA funding because the feds pay for 75 percent of the shell.

“That’s worth about $130 a square foot,” Cox said. “The shelters cost about $200 finished, but they (FEMA) won’t pay for any of the finishes.”

In the case of a shelter that operates as a gym, for example, the school district must pay for the gym floor.

Lately, FEMA money has been drying up, and Wichita has continued its commitment without FEMA money. A bond passed by Wichita voters in 2008 is providing funding to build a safe room in every school that does not currently have one.

According to the school district website, these safe rooms are designed to withstand EF-5 tornadoes, flying debris and wind speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.

The Kansas community has primarily built large scale tornado shelters.

“We go for the student body plus the staff,” Cox said. “In some of our bigger schools, our high school, for example, we usually put in at least two shelters.”

The district’s oldest high school, Wichita East High, was built in 1918 and now has two shelters.

“We don’t try to retrofit existing and FEMA will not retrofit,” Cox said. “You never know what’s there for sure. Even if you think you know, you don’t know. We don’t want to take the chance.”

Older schools in Wichita have gotten shelters through building adjacent structures such as a new gym, music suite, library, cafeteria or multipurpose room.

“All of our shelters are designed to be an educational space first and then we design them to be a shelter,” Cox said. “We figure it costs about $50 a square foot more to reinforce a classroom.”

In Wichita, schools cost about $160 per square foot, Cox said. Reinforcing a structure raises the cost to about $210 per square foot.

“We feel that’s good use of our dollars,” Cox said.

Advantages of smaller shelters: In Oklahoma, The Stacy Group focuses on small, above-ground safe rooms rather than large or underground shelters.

“The reason we’ve pushed for classrooms is because we think it would be more calming to have a smaller group to control than to have 700 kids in a room,” Willis said. “The Reagan safe rooms will protect up to 250 mph winds. That’s the zone we’re in, according to the FEMA guidebook.”

The cost of a regular classroom in Reagan is $137,000. The cost of those specially designed classrooms doubling as tornado shelters is $157,000 each. The doors on Norman’s Reagan Elementary’s safe rooms are FEMA tested and there are two doors to allow for an easier exit if one door is blocked. The walls are double reinforced concrete walls, and each room has a reinforced concrete roof.

Owasso’s Stone Canyon Elementary has the same type of storm shelters as Reagan.

“We’ve done them in Owasso and we’ve done them in Edmond,” Willis said.

Above-ground safe rooms tend to be quick access for students and allow for greater accessibility for students with disabilities. And smaller rooms are less expensive to make tornado safe.

“It’s pretty consistent. When you use a classroom model it’s less expensive,” Willis said. “When the room gets taller and wider, structurally, it takes more to meet that 250 mph wind rating.”

The added cost of Norman’s Truman Primary gym was double the cost of the Reagan safe rooms at $247,608. The total cost of the gym was $1,578,026, school officials said.

Goin said Edmond is currently planning for the future.

“We have capacity in designed safe rooms in schools for about 7,850 students, and another 4,100 approximately could shelter in below-ground facilities,” Goin said. “We anticipate it would require an investment of $26 (million) to $30 million additional dollars to outfit all of our schools.”

So far, all of Edmond’s shelters are in new construction.

“You have to go into it on a basis of a school-by-school site,” Goin said. “Retrofitting will present different challenges.”

Joy Hampton