Oklahoma School Districts Consider Adding Storm Shelters

It's the first day of school in Moore, Oklahoma. In May, a massive tornado ripped across town, killing 24 and obliterating homes, businesses and two schools. Schools there didn't have storm shelters, but districts across Oklahoma are beginning to make changes.

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On a Friday, this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

Today is the first day of school for students in Moore, Oklahoma. It is a bittersweet return. Nearly three months ago, a tornado tore through that small community. The storm destroyed hundreds of buildings, including two elementary schools. Seven students and 18 other people died. The storm has fueled a debate about why there aren't more storm shelters in the heart of Tornado Alley. Across Oklahoma, there's no statewide plan to put shelters in schools.

So as Kurt Gwartney from member station KGOU reports, some districts are trying to do it themselves.

KURT GWARTNEY, BYLINE: Percussionists in the Woodward High School fine arts wing practice music for an upcoming halftime show.


GWARTNEY: It's football season, not tornado season that's on their minds. Right now there is no tornado-safe space on their campus, but that may change soon.

TIM MERCHANT: What do we need for our kids? And safe rooms were one of those things that were identified.

GWARTNEY: Tim Merchant is superintendent of the Woodward School District. The board in northwest Oklahoma decided this month to ask voters to make sure every child in their care would have a safe place to go during life-threatening storms. The decision comes a year after a tornado hit their town.

Deputy superintendent Kyle Reynolds was on duty trying to keep kids safe at the school when the twister struck.

KYLE REYNOLDS: Our reaction was to do exactly what we had talked about for years, which was to get everyone that we could in the dressing rooms in the basketball gym. That was the place that we had considered our safe room for years and years.

GWARTNEY: But engineers examining the concrete structure later determined the high school's safe place actually could collapse if hit by a strong tornado. Merchant says Woodward didn't want to wait on the state of Oklahoma to settle on a plan to pay for shelters.

MERCHANT: I would love for these to be funded by state tax dollars or federal tax dollars, but that's not going to happen.

GWARTNEY: The federal government has helped pay for 85 school safe rooms in Oklahoma, but that's just a fraction of what's needed. So a new non-profit group has started raising private money to build public school safe rooms. State Representative Richard Morrissette says the organization he helped start is important.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE RICHARD MORRISSETTE: Our political leadership is so weak on this issue. They give lip service, and they do nothing. You know, what's that old rock song that you and I remember? You know, you can talk the talk, but you got to walk the walk. Nobody walks the walk around here.

GWARTNEY: A spokesman for Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin disagrees. Alex Weintz says it will take local, state, federal and private money to put safe rooms in every school.

ALEX WEINTZ: We have well over a thousand school buildings in the state of Oklahoma. And we think that it would cost probably at least $2 billion to build new storm shelters or safe rooms in each one of those, and that's a little under a third of the state's entire budget for a year. It's not realistic to think that the state would be able to pay for a tornado shelter in each school.

GWARTNEY: Back in Woodward, Kyle Reynolds is pressing on. He says the chance of a monster tornado similar to what slammed into Moore hitting his schools is small. But he still believes the storm shelters are worth the cost.

REYNOLDS: Personally, as I consider this, I don't want to be the one who, at some point in the future, has to witness a disaster of that nature, and see the loss of life, and look back and say that I was one of the ones that did not want to take those precautions. So I will fight for it. That's my goal

GWARTNEY: Whether Oklahoma's leaders share his passion is not so clear. In the meantime, the two elementary schools destroyed in Moore last spring are being rebuilt - this time, with storm shelters.

For NPR news, I'm Kurt Gwartney, in Oklahoma City.

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