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Oklahoma Tornado Project: Safe Schools 101

Filed by Nikole Robinson Carroll in Art & Life, Feature, Local News, News, Oklahoma Votes, Politics.
February 4, 2014

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Ever since a series of deadly tornadoes rattled the state last May, destroying two elementary schools, the idea of building safe rooms has become much more prominent.  After all, according to one study released shortly after the storms, more than 60% of Oklahoma’s schools have no shelter at all. Now, as Kate Carlton reports, the Department of Emergency Management is taking steps to fix that.

Brian Orr is a structural engineer for SAFE Design Group in Springfield, Missouri.  He helps school districts find grants and build safe rooms so their schools are less vulnerable to tornados.  He says his team came to Oklahoma shortly after the storms to clarify misinformation about shelter construction.

“There was enough false information that it was scaring school districts into thinking they can’t do it or can’t afford to do it,” Orr says.  ”And they didn’t realize that also safe rooms can be a secondary function.” 

That misinformation came from a variety of sources, he said, including architects who had no experience building shelters.   But in the months that followed, there’s been a sea change, so now many of them are jumping at the chance to increase their skill sets.

“Every architect and engineer is going to learn how to do that so they can call themselves an expert and then get a piece of the pie to do the work,” Orr says.  ”So you’ll have people that have no interest in doing school work or doing safe rooms and now they’re going to learn everything they can because they see that as a lot of work in the state of Oklahoma for engineers, architects and contractors.”

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and FEMA recently teamed up to create “Safe Schools 101,” a program to educate professionals to assess and build safe rooms for schools across the state.

Director of Emergency Management Albert Ashwood says this program is important even without specific funding measures for the shelters in place.

“Whether you have a lot of money or you don’t have the money, the fact is you still have to have a program,” Ashwood says.  ”So what we’re trying to do is establish that program, make sure that schools that do put in safe rooms meet a standard. And there’s only one standard that’s out there and that’s the FEMA standard.”

That FEMA standard is hard to come by when evaluating Oklahoma schools.  In a study sponsored by Take Shelter Oklahoma – a school shelter advocacy group – only 15% of the 18-hundred schools across the state have FEMA-approved shelters.

But Hans Butzer, the director of architecture at the University of Oklahoma, says that number is growing, as more districts realize that shelters can serve more than one purpose.

“The biggest interest is how can you adapt spaces that you know you have to build in the school to meet the FEMA guidelines,” Butzer says.  ”For example, if you just simply harden the corridors of a new school, you’re always going to need the corridors, so it’s not like you’re building extra space. But overall, you’re seeing this conversation rise dramatically, and the engineers are just as interested.”

Emergency Management Director Ashwood understands installing shelters will be a time-consuming process, but he hopes the department can aid in assessing how to best help each school.

“The bottom line is we need more and more teams that can go out there. We’ve got 517 school districts,” Ashwood says.  ”We’ve got 1800 or so school buildings. Nothing is going to happen very quickly.”

For now, Safe Schools 101 is considering offering continuing education credits for architects, engineers and other professionals looking to get a piece of the pie.  It’s a growing business for everyone involved, but beyond making money, it could potentially save lives.


Funding for the Oklahoma Tornado Project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

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