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February 15, 2014

Storm shelter tested

NORMAN — An excavator tore down an aging former school Friday in rural Oklahoma, but it was what was left standing that drew a crowd.

After the ceilings and concrete walls of the old Little Axe middle school came down with ease, a strategically placed steel storm shelter remained among the debris.

It was a planned demonstration by Oklahoma-based Hide-Away Shelter and school officials to see how well the above-ground storm shelter, made by Hide-Away, could withstand the power of a demolition.

Storm shelters in schools have been a heated topic in Oklahoma after a tornado tore through Moore last May and killed seven children at a local elementary school that did not have shelters.

Little Axe Public Schools Superintendent Tony Smith said the district is looking at various options that would protect students during severe weather following two tornadoes in the area in the past few years.

“I think so far, so good. It held up,” Smith said after the machine had turned off and the dust settled. “We really just wanted to see an up-close and in-person demonstration, and we felt like this was a unique opportunity to do that.”

Other options the school system, in central Oklahoma about 30 miles southeast of Moore, is looking at include multipurpose safe rooms and concrete tunnels.

The biggest hurdle for the Little Axe district, Smith said, is money. It would need 75 Hide-Away shelters to protect the district’s 1,200 students, which would cost about $1.3 million.

“We’re at bonding capacity. We have a lot of new structures around and those cost a lot of money. We’re pretty much maxed out,” Smith said. A new middle school opened in the district in December replacing the old one.

State Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat who’s running for governor, has proposed a $500 million state bond package that local school districts could use to build the shelters. Another proposal that recently passed a House committee and is backed by Gov. Mary Fallin calls for a statewide vote to allow every school district to pursue a one-time increase in bonding capacity for safety upgrades.

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