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Associated Press, Published May 22 2013

School storm protection is spotty in tornado zones

MOORE, Okla. – With its single-story design and cinder-block walls, Plaza Towers Elementary School may have seemed sturdy when it was built a couple of generations ago. But a powerful tornado revealed the building’s lack of modern safety standards, destroying the school and killing seven students.

Unlike several other schools in the Oklahoma City area, Plaza Towers had no “safe room” in which students and teachers could seek protection from a twister.

The federal government offers money to schools in some states if they decide to install the reinforced rooms. But doing so can still be a daunting financial decision, requiring up to a $1 million for a single storm shelter that might never be needed. That dollars-and-cents reality has resulted in a patchwork of protection in tornado-prone areas – sometimes with tragic results.

In response to the tornado that plowed through Moore, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin announced Wednesday the creation of a state fund to accept donations for the construction of safe rooms, which are fortified by deep foundations, thick concrete walls and steel doors designed to withstand winds of 250 mph.

Separately, a member of the state House of Representatives proposed creating a $500 million bond issue to pay for storm shelters at public schools and in private homes across the state.

“From the public, it’s been a huge outcry,” said state Rep. Joe Dorman, a Demo-crat from rural Rush Springs, about 60 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. “We need to do something to require storm shelters in schools, especially in the vulnerable areas where there have been tornado outbreaks.”

Oklahoma, which has averaged more than 50 tornadoes per year since record-keeping began in 1950, is in the heart of tornado alley. State officials asserted Wednesday that they had done more than their counterparts in any other state to encourage construction of community safe rooms and home storm shelters.

More than 100 Oklahoma schools have already received federal grant money for safe rooms, said the head of the state’s emergency management agency.

Yet most schools still lack them. The reason: the cost, which can range from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million, depending on the size of the room. For some cash-strapped districts, that could equal the annual salary of nearly an entire school’s teaching staff.

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants distributed by states can cover 75 percent of the cost of safe rooms, but local schools still must come up with the rest. Some school districts have issued bonds, backed by tax revenues, to ease the burden. But even that has limits.

In other places, school districts have built gymnasiums or music rooms that can serve as safe rooms during a storm.

A massive tornado destroyed six schools and badly damaged four others on May 22, 2011, in Joplin, Mo., though none of the buildings was occupied because it was a Sunday.

As Joplin began to rebuild, officials decided to put tornado shelters in all 13 of their schools, including those that were not destroyed. All of the shelters will double as gymnasiums. A 14th storm shelter being built at the football stadium will serve as a locker room. All are meant to protect students, staff and the public – remaining open 24 hours a day with space to house up to 15,000 people.

Joplin Superintendent C.J. Huff said the above-ground shelters will be built with reinforced steel and specially treated concrete designed to withstand an EF5 tornado like the twisters that hit Joplin and Moore.

The Joplin storm shelters are among 148 that Missouri has helped finance with

$155 million of federal money since 2004, according to figures provided Wednesday by the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

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