In Moore, Oklahoma, an area residents call Tornado Alley because it’s struck by more ferocious twisters than anywhere in the U.S., two schools destroyed by the May 20 storm lacked “safe room” shelters that would have cost $600,000 to $1 million per building to retrofit.
Rescue teams with mobile cranes, flatbed trucks and front-end loaders continued to clear rubble yesterday from the area around Plaza Towers Elementary School, where at least seven children lost their lives, police said.
Neither Plaza Towers nor Briarwood Elementary School had safe rooms, chambers made of steel and other materials that are bolted to the ground or installed underground, said Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. It would have cost between $600,000 and $1 million to retrofit each with the shelters, he said in an interview.
“We have funded over 100 school safe rooms. The two hit were not among them,” Ashwood said. “We are checking as to how many were applied for in Moore and how many were applied for in Oklahoma City.”
Ashwood said the department was looking into whether the two schools had applied for federal funding to build safe rooms. Numerous Oklahoma and Texas companies advertise safe rooms online, attesting to their safety even in EF-5 storms of the kind that hit Moore, with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour.
“You have a limited amount of funds,” he said. “You set priorities. It’s not a matter of they were being left out.”
Moore was hit hard by a tornado in May 1999 that followed a similar path. It had the highest winds ever recorded near the earth’s surface and was one of the most expensive in U.S. history at $1 billion in damage, according to the National Weather Service. A total of 41 direct and indirect fatalities were attributed to the storm in Moore and other towns, the service said. Another tornado hit Moore in 2003.
“If they can afford a $5 million football stadium, they can afford a safe room,” said John Lemmon, 67, who lives near Plaza Towers school. “They should have done it right after they had the last big one.”
Immediately after the May 20 storm, police and other first responders used their bare hands to dig through collapsed cinder blocks and debris to save trapped children at Plaza Towers, which had stood on the site since 1966. Some children were pulled out of the rubble alive, and at least one mother saved her child by coming to the school to pick up her daughter as the storm approached.
“We’re confident everyone is out,” said Sergeant Jeremy Lewis of the Moore police department in an interview near the school, indicating that searchers didn’t expect to find more bodies there.
More than 75 students were at school when the tornado struck, KFOR-TV reported.
The schools belong to a district in northern Cleveland County between Oklahoma City, the state’s largest municipality, and Norman, its third-largest, in the south portion of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.
It’s a section of the U.S. that’s been struck by tornadoes more times than any other place in the country, according to government data. The May 20 storm came the day after two people were killed and 39 injured in separate storms in the state. At least 30 tornadoes were reported on May 19 from Illinois to Oklahoma.
The district’s storm response procedures call for local schools to prepare for tornadoes by gathering students in rooms away from exterior walls and windows, and to kneel on the floor in a protective, crouched position.
“That’s what the kids were doing when they found them,” Lewis said.
“Underground shelters in schools would probably be a wise idea,” said Suzanne Jobe, who has four children in three schools in Moore. She recalled participating in safety drills in such shelters as a young girl in nearby Norman. In a strong tornado, she said, “If you’re not underground, you’re gone.”
Ashwood said it’s up to each district to decide which schools get funding for safe rooms. Such shelters wouldn’t have guaranteed safety at the two schools hit by the storm in Moore, he said.
Funding for safe rooms comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is awarded based on prior disasters, he said.
Moore School District, the third-largest school district in the state, had an enrollment of 22,564 students serving a population of 126,228 in June 2012, according to documents for $6.2 million of bonds sold Sept. 10. The school district is the biggest employer in the city, with 2,500 employees. The district’s debt totaled $74.5 million as of Aug. 21, the documents said.
The district in the state has 23 elementary schools, five junior high schools, three high schools and one alternative school, according to the bond offering.
At Briarwood Elementary, school officials moved students from a portable classroom to the main school building as the storm approached. Jade Hardwick, 29, said she believed the move saved her 7-year-old daughter from injury, even after the tornado knocked down walls at the school and wrecked cars in its parking lot.
“I think you can only do the best you can,” she said. “In our case it worked out.”
Local residents who have experienced tornados with such severe destructive force don’t question their power to flatten institutional buildings such as schools and hospitals, said David Wheeler, 42, the father of a boy rescued from Briarwood minutes after the storm passed.
“Maybe there will be some changes requiring residential storm shelters and stronger construction codes, but storms of this size have awesome destructive power and no one doubts their ability to knock a building down,” Wheeler said in a telephone interview.
During the height of the storm, at Briarwood Elementary School, about a mile from Plaza Towers, 8-year-old Gabriel Wheeler huddled in a closet with five classmates. Just as their third-grade teacher, Julie Simon, asked them to put their heads between their legs for protection the roof of the one-story building caved in, David Wheeler said.
Gabriel and the others, who received cuts and bruises without serious injury, were able to claw their way out within minutes and rescuers directed them to a command center nearby.
Wheeler said that when he found his son more than three hours later, Gabriel told him, “‘Mrs. Simon will always be my favorite teacher.’”