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Oklahoma Schools Lacked Consistent Tornado Shelter Rules

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The two elementary schools leveled by the deadly tornado that swept through the Oklahoma City area Monday lacked designated safe rooms designed to protect children and teachers, despite state warnings that the absence of such facilities imperils lives.

At least two other schools in Moore -- the epicenter of the disaster -- did have safe rooms. So far no fatalities have been tied to those schools, whose buildings were fortified after a devastating twister hit the area in 1999.

These disparities in structural standards speak to the seeming randomness of who lived and who died in a natural disaster now blamed for taking the lives of at least 24 people, including nine children. Requirements for safe rooms in public schools vary from community to community across the swath of Midwestern and Southern states so accustomed to lethal twisters that it is known as Tornado Alley.

In Oklahoma and in bordering states, land-use regulations are often derided as unnecessary government intrusions. State building codes do not require that schools provide safe rooms, leaving the decision to individual school districts.

State emergency managers in Oklahoma do not track which schools maintain adequate storm shelters -- a fact state authorities highlighted as a worrisome deficiency in their most recent disaster plan submitted to the federal government.

"This presents a substantial life safety and injury risk to children as well as school staff and visitors," reads the 2011 plan, which every state must periodically submit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a condition of eligibility for disaster assistance.

Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday that the two schools in Moore that were destroyed Monday did not have safe rooms.

The deaths of at least seven children inside the city's flattened Plaza Towers Elementary School has already prompted calls for greater protection in public schools.

"Why are there not safe rooms in these schools?" asked Moore resident Randall Thurman, whose son goes to another nearby school that is outfitted with a safe room. "I'm really upset talking about that elementary school."

"It's unconscionable that we don't have a place where the parents feel that it's safe for their kids during the day," said Oklahoma state Rep. Joe Dorman (D), who pushed Tuesday for legislative leaders to propose a $500 million bond issue to pay for safe rooms in schools and near homes. "If those kids are going to be there from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., they need to have that sense of security, and the structure needs to be safer. It's a no-brainer."

Since the 1990s, experts have advocated for the increased use of FEMA-approved safe houses and safe rooms -- generally built to withstand winds of up to 250 miles per hour. Some school districts have built gyms that double as safe rooms, whereas others incorporate the designs into other interior rooms.

Emergency-management experts say the shelters are particularly crucial for buildings with hundreds of potentially captive people inside -- like schools, nursing homes and day-care centers -- and structurally unsound areas such as mobile-home parks.

"Those are vulnerable populations that need protection, and yet many of them are unprotected," said Ernst Kiesling, a professor of civil engineering at Texas Tech University who founded the National Storm Shelter Association to push for a uniform set of construction standards.

Getting the sufficient resources to build such structures has been a challenge. FEMA distributes grant money to states after major disasters to give communities an incentive to rebuild smarter and to avoid costlier disasters in the future. But support is limited, and local school districts still must come up with around a quarter of the costs for storm improvements.

In Oklahoma, districts have a mixed record of requiring tornado upgrades. After more than than 70 tornadoes tore through Oklahoma and parts of Kansas in May 1999 -- one of the costliest such outbreaks in U.S. history -- public schools in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and other cities across the state tapped into FEMA grant money to incorporate safe rooms into new school construction projects.

In Moore, which prior to Monday's storm was struck by tornadoes in 1999 and again in 2003, school board officials applied for FEMA funds to rebuild an elementary school and a high school damaged during the May 1999 storms. Both those buildings incorporated much stronger shelter designs in hallways and interior rooms, and one of the schools -- Kelley Elementary -- is featured as a prominent case study in FEMA's literature on tornado protection.

But the vast majority of older schools across the state, including the devastated Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools in Moore, lack such upgrades.

The problem stems in part from the way the federal government doles out disaster funding. A major pot of money for building storm shelters is set aside in a FEMA program for hazard mitigation, which is designed to lower the costs of future disasters by adding improved building codes and structural designs.

Generally, homeowners or government bodies such as school districts put up 25 percent of the costs, and the federal government pitches in the rest. After the 1999 tornadoes, federal money paid for nearly 10,000 new safe rooms across Oklahoma, mostly for private homeowners.

But the money dries up over time, and there are usually far more applicants than available grants. Federal funding to guard against future disasters is distributed based on the cost of the prior disaster, meaning the money eventually runs out if there haven't been major disasters in an area in recent years.

"I think we've lost the momentum," said Ann Patton, a Tulsa writer and disaster consultant who worked with Project Impact, a group involved in Oklahoma's first push for safe houses.

The state had a lottery system for private homeowners who were interested in building safe rooms. But the rebate programs in Oklahoma City and other towns across the state are currently on hold due to insufficient funding.

The lack of resources also makes it difficult for the state to mandate construction of safe rooms in schools.

"If it were to happen at the state level, there would need to be funding behind it," said Amber England, government affairs director with the Oklahoma chapter of Stand for Children, an education advocacy group.

Alabama is one of the only states that requires new schools to be built with FEMA-approved safe rooms. After a tornado in 2007 killed eight students at the state's Enterprise High School, the legislature passed a requirement that new schools provide safe areas for students.

Leading construction experts have recognized the importance of including safe rooms in schools. An upcoming version of the International Building Code, a model code used to govern construction standards across the world, will recommend that new schools in high-risk tornado areas install safe rooms. But it could take 15 to 20 years for those standards to be adopted widely across the United States.

Experts say this week's tornadoes could offer a wake-up call for improving school safety.

"I will admit that the probability of being hit at a given location by a tornado is relatively small," said Kiesling, the Texas Tech engineering professor. "But that's not very comforting when you hear the sirens go off and you hear the weather warnings. I think the peace of mind is what you're buying, and it's worth a significant investment."

Ben Hallman reported from Moore, Okla., and Chris Kirkham and Joy Resmovits reported from New York.

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