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Why Edmond Won’t Be Opening Up Schools as Shelters

Filed by KOSU News in Local News, News.
February 22, 2012

It was less than 48 hours after an EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, shredding houses, businesses, and leaving 162 dead, and reminding the Midwest about the sheer power of tornadoes. On May 24, 2011, an outbreak of storms hit Oklahoma. Mostly running in the center part of the state, the tornadoes ran over 8 different counties.

As people scrambled to find protection, the city of Edmond had a decision to make: should they allow residents to shelter in schools, or would they have to find their own protection? Jim Rothrock, Edmond Public Schools’ safety coordinator, told me they gave a heads up to the custodians at Edmond Public Schools. If people come by, just open the doors and show them into a safe place. They didn’t publicize the option, didn’t send out a press release to alert the media. It was a word of mouth, last resort option.

A handful of residents came by, and then the power of social media took over. What was maybe 10 or 15 at first turned into 1,000 to 1,500 before nearly 9,000 eventually took cover at one of Edmond’s 15 public schools.

“Here you have a nighttime staff of custodians to manage this thing, and you can’t do it,” Rothrock said.

“It’s a logistical nightmare”.

He says staff did all that they could, handing out water to those at the school. But some people wanted food, they expected a more coordinated response. But Edmond leadership wasn’t expecting 9,000 people. And they weren’t expecting 4,000 animals either. You could have practically put together an amateur zoo, with parrots, lizards, guinea pigs and the usual dogs and cats. They had initially thought it would become a calm place for neighbors to gather and take shelter, where everyone knew everyone else. In the 21st century, that’s a tall task.

When students are in school, Rothrock says schools have an action plan. For some that means heading to safe rooms, others take cover in the most protected room available. But he says the schools simply aren’t equipped, where staff doesn’t know who might show up, what they might bring, and what might be going through their head.

After the threat had passed, trash littered the school grounds, both inside and outside the buildings. Edmond Public Schools had to do a thorough cleaning of the makeshift shelters.

After an extensive review of the May 24th decision, the city decided it just couldn’t manage such a large operation. There was concern former sex offenders might have been in the shelters, or those involved in drugs.

It may sound cold, but after such a frenzied experience in 2011, Rockrock says, “Edmond schools won’t be open, we cannot handle that. We’re not set up for it.”

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