Okla. Officials Toss Around Storm Shelter Issue After Twister

In Moore, Okla, officials are figuring out how to rebuild after Monday's deadly tornado. They are concerned about everything from threats to public health to hiring contractors to haul a big chunk of their town away. The schools in Moore that took direct hits from the tornado had no storm shelters.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. The final death toll from that tornado in Moore, Oklahoma is 24. Ten of the dead were children. The search for survivors is over, and now this stunned community begins the long process of rebuilding, which begins with removing a staggering amount of debris. NPR's Wade Goodwyn spent time at City Hall in Moore yesterday.

He found officials facing daunting questions, like whether there are threats to public health, and how to hire contractors to haul a big chunk of this community away.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: On the drive south into Moore from Oklahoma City, you can tell when you're starting to get close by the mud splatter. Before the EF5 blasted through on Monday, it had been raining hard for days in central Oklahoma. When the tornado initially dropped from the sky, the first videos show it distinctly, trim and white, a perfectly formed little EF1.

Fifteen minutes later, plowing a trough half a mile wide, it was a mud-caked, fat monster, fuzzy, black and ravenous. Like most everything in town, Moore City Hall is splattered with tornado mud, big ugly gobs, top to bottom.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY COUNCIL MEETING)

STEVE EDDY: Item number four is to consider adoption of resolution number 76713.

GOODWYN: And like many here in Moore, City Manager Steve Eddy has been through this before. In 1999, another EF5 cut right through town.

EDDY: You know, it's hard to characterize. They're all terrible, and they're all pretty rough. I think this one may be - I mean, it may be larger just because I think it crossed through a longer swath of Moore than the other one did.

GOODWYN: The 1999 tornado completely destroyed 600 homes and 100 businesses. Statisticians say your chance of being killed by a tornado are about the same as being killed by falling out of bed, roughly one in 2 million. But in the last 15 years, the town of Moore has been hit by four major tornados, two of them EF5's, the most powerful tornado known to man. How can that be?

MAYOR GLENN LEWIS: If I wondered too much about it, I think I'd go crazy, because we have been hit by four major tornadoes during the last 14 or 15 years. What is it? Atmospheric or topographic or something that is causing this to happen. I grew up here. So for 57 years, I've lived here. Used to, we just didn't see tornados like that.

GOODWYN: Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis made headlines Wednesday when he said the City Council should pass a law mandating new homes in Moore be built with storm shelters. Given what the town's been through this week, that may seem like a no-brainer to outsiders. But not in conservative Moore. The city manager offers a mild rebuke to the mayor when asked about the subject.

EDDY: Obviously, the council will decide that. We've had this discussion after every tornado that comes along, and haven't done it yet. We're a pretty independent lot around here in terms of telling me what I have to do and what I don't have to do. Homebuilders - we have lots and lots of homes built here. Homebuilders are influential.

GOODWYN: Amid the Pavlovian media gushing about how the town of Moore has rallied round has also come some implied criticism about the fact that the elementary schools that took direct hits had no storm shelters. Seven third-graders died huddling in their classroom, asphyxiated by falling debris. When asked about that, the city manager says this.

EDDY: Lives, you can't count the cost or the value of lives, but you can count the cost of construction. It adds a significant amount of cost to construction. The taxpayers would have to determine whether they're going to pay that or not.

GOODWYN: But it's hard to imagine having buried 10 of its youngest and most vulnerable that the new replacement elementary schools won't have large storm shelters included. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Moore, Oklahoma.

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