The Norman Transcript

News Features

June 21, 2013

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



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.

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