AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
If a tornado was coming, where would you go? The question is particularly fraught for people with disabilities who live in Tornado Alley. Take Oklahoma, where 146 tornadoes touched down just last year. The state's public shelters were often wheelchair-accessible. But as Jackie Fortier reports, those shelters have been closing their doors.
JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: John High (ph) knows that when he hears a tornado siren wailing across the city of Norman...
(SOUNDBITE OF TORNADO SIREN)
FORTIER: ...He's on his own.
JOHN HIGH: Just pray - that's all I can do.
FORTIER: That's because in the house he rents, he doesn't have a safe place to go.
HIGH: One person told me, put on a football helmet and go in your kitchen. I got a window in every room in this house. Even my bathroom has a window. So there's really no place for me to go, and that's why I'm trying to get a shelter.
FORTIER: It used to take him just a couple of minutes to drive his motorized wheelchair to the nearest public shelter, a school just down the block. It was the main reason he chose to rent this house when he moved back to Norman. But most public shelters were shut down a few years ago to cut costs, leaving Oklahomans like High to fend for themselves.
HIGH: I fear. I fear for my life, you know? When - at least when the shelters were there, we could go down four houses away to a shelter.
FORTIER: The gold standard for people who live in tornado-prone areas is a storm shelter. The base model is just a concrete box set into the ground, usually in a backyard. To get in, you have to go down a steep set of stairs or a ladder. High needs a more expensive above-ground shelter that he can drive his wheelchair into in the few minutes before a tornado hits. He can't afford to pay for it on his own.
HIGH: What bill am I going to not pay to try to save up $3,800? I mean, I live day to day. I mean, every month is really rough. We're Tornado Alley. We're known for it. Why aren't they trying to help protect the - instead of, well, just duck your head and go in your house.
FORTIER: Oklahoma experiences some of the most severe weather events in the nation but has no state laws requiring storm shelters in homes, apartments or businesses or nearby.
KELI CAIN: We recommend that if you're able to install a safe room in your home or on your property, we recommend that you do that. That's the safest place that you can be during a storm.
FORTIER: Keli Cain is a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. The state does have a rebate program that gives about 50 people a year $2,000 towards the cost of a storm shelter. It's funded by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But it's a random lottery system, and renters like John High can't even apply.
CAIN: It's for homeowners only, and that's part of the federal grant requirement.
FORTIER: That's unfair to renters, according to advocates, and people with disabilities tend to rent more.
Sara Pratt is a former official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
SARA PRATT: There has to be an opportunity for a person with a disability to shelter.
FORTIER: One way to help would be to allow renters to be eligible for the shelter rebates or prioritize the most vulnerable, like people with disabilities or even the elderly - anyone in Oklahoma who can't get themselves underground fast. Pratt wonders why Oklahoma even bars renters from getting a shelter rebate.
PRATT: The idea that we don't have to serve people with disabilities who are renters is not consistent with federal law.
FORTIER: Laws like the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, say people with disabilities must have the same opportunities as everyone to participate in federal programs, such as disaster preparation. After the city of Norman closed the public shelter near his house, John High tried other ways to stay safe. He asked the city to reconsider. He asked them to buy him a shelter. The answer was always no.
HIGH: If a tornado comes through, I'm going to be dead.
FORTIER: Federal data shows that between 2009 and 2017, Oklahoma had the highest number of major disaster declarations of any state. That includes severe storms, fires, floods, ice storms and, of course, tornadoes. Many of those hazards are expected to become worse and more frequent due to climate change.
For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Norman, Okla.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.