The Norman Transcript

June 30, 2013

Public buildings as shelters not a win-win

The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Editor, The Transcript:

Norman Fire Chief James Fullingim needs a duck.

He is correct to discourage the use of public buildings, even those with substantial or even safe room construction, as public storm shelters. But many will think he is heartless or cruel.

He might try an angry duck.

Oklahoma City Community College (then South Oklahoma City Junior College) opened in 1972 in a 65,000-square-foot underground concrete building. The only part visible above ground was about the size of a one car garage. Even nearby neighbors couldn’t believe an actual college was under that odd building in the middle of a 143-acre field.

Someone came up with the idea to promote this new, almost invisible, underground college as a public storm shelter. Sure, why not? It seemed like a win-win situation. The community would gain the equivalent of a giant cellar and the college would get needed identity and image in the community.

I was in charge of public relations and got the word out that SOCJC was a place to come when tornado warnings sounded in southwest Oklahoma City.

When storm sirens went off the first time, a few people came. The second time several, the third time many.

Before long, hundreds of frightened people rushed frantically to beat the storm. They parked randomly but as close as possible, often blocking driveways, leaving motors running, headlights on and doors open and ran to the nearest entry. They came dressed every way imaginable with kids in pajamas and carrying or dragging anxious pets, including dogs, cats, assorted birds and other critters, including at least one duck.

Soon when storms threatened, chaos conflicted with serving students. We tried to restrict the sudden visitors to one area, with limited success.

In two or three years, the college had outgrown its original space and work was well under way on the first major building, a three-story, dark red barn-looking building that quickly became a landmark at Southwest 74th and May Avenue.

If the first underground building was a satisfactory storm shelter, the big red barn was not. We began to discourage use of the college as a shelter. What we thought was win-win turned bad for all.

But frantic citizens continued to come. Shelter seekers were guided to the most secure area near a loading ramp where college Board of Regents members were advised to park and enter for their meetings.

One evening, not long before a regents’ meeting, sirens sounded, the stampede began and the mob gathered. This time, as regents passed through, a duck apparently took offense or felt threatened, or something. It attacked a regent.

I’ll bet that, to this day, when storm sirens sound near OCCC, a few scared neighbors go running to that beautiful campus that, now, is everything but a tornado shelter.

Chief Fullingim, good luck. You are right to urge stopping use of Norman public buildings as shelters. But if you want it done quickly, sic a pet goose or duck on the mayor or a councilman. It worked for me.

Lance Ward