Thousands of people found shelter in public buildings during Tuesday's deadly outbreak of tornadoes, but others were initially turned away or saw tempers flare at crowded public shelters as the storm bore down.
Most small towns across Oklahoma have designated public shelters, but for many urban and suburban residents the options are muddled. There's no single list kept by officials of public shelters in the Oklahoma City metro area.
It's partly a liability issue and partly a public safety issue. Whatever the reason, public emergency shelters have fallen out of favor.
Oklahoma City, Moore and Edmond do not have public shelters. That's expected to be an increasing trend with cities, said Moore Emergency Management Director Gayland Kitch.
“You're going to find it's a short list, and it's getting shorter,” Kitch said. “The cities that have them are trying to get out of the business.”
Kitch said people place themselves in greater danger by traveling to a public shelter. Many times, they are safer if they stay in their homes and take precautions.
“People look at the devastation of the May 3 (1999) tornado and ask, ‘How did people survive?'
Thousands seek safety in schools
Edmond has a recorded message line telling residents the city does not have designated emergency shelters. The message offers tornado safety tips and advises people to have a plan before bad weather arrives.
On Tuesday, between 5,000 and 6,000 people — and many of their pets — sought shelter at 22 Edmond Public Schools, said Associate Superintendent Brenda Lyons.
The schools are not usually open to the public as emergency shelters, but officials decided to open them because of the severity of the storms and the time of day. Most students had left for the day when the decision was made about 3 p.m. to keep schools open for the community, Lyons said.
“Everything was in the right place at the right time to make this decision, which is not one we normally make,” Lyons said. “In some schools, especially with the smaller areas, it got pretty stuffy, but they could go out into hallways when the weather lightened up and it wasn't as serious.”
at some shelters
In Midwest City, tempers flared as some city-designated emergency shelters hit capacity, said Police Chief Brandon Clabes. There are three public shelters in Midwest City: City Hall, a fire station on 801 S Westminster and the Reed Center, a conference center near Interstate 40 and Sooner Road.
“In the height of the storm, the (City Hall) shelter was over capacity, Clabes said. “There were people in walkers and wheelchairs. We had to put them somewhere.”
City officials let some seek refuge at the police station. Another 2,200 people were at the Reed Center, Clabes said.
During the storm, a 20-year-old woman with a child got through a locked door at City Hall by kicking out the glass. Clabes said he doesn't expect charges to be filed against the woman, Brittany Rose Francks, but the city wants restitution for the estimated $300 in damages.
Francks, who was cited by police, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In Del City, one family said it was initially turned away from Del Crest Middle School. The school is not a public shelter, but some employees were in the building. Mid-Del Schools started summer break May 18.
Tara Cameron, 29, sought refuge inside the school with her husband, Dale, and six children, ages 2 to 12. The Camerons live across the street from the school, which is attended by their oldest child.
“We already had our house prepared on the inside and we were going to go into the inside closets,” Tara Cameron said. “But when we heard about the (tornado) in El Reno possibly coming this way, we didn't think our house would survive that.”
The family was initially turned away by employees. Later, the Camerons were let in, but didn't feel welcome, Tara Cameron said.
“If you have the keys to a safe place and obviously are going to take your family in there, why would you deny all the neighborhood kids that go to that school access if you're in there?” she said. “When it's life or death, who cares about the policies?”
Stacey Boyer, director of community relations for Mid-Del School District, said the district does not have any public emergency shelters.
“Employees of Mid-Del Schools did use a facility for shelter during the weather outbreak on May 24,” Boyer said in a statement. “Members of the community approached a school site and were granted entrance for shelter. While the school was not designated as a storm shelter, no one was turned away.”
Oklahoma City schools not available
Kathleen Kennedy, spokeswoman for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said the district's 78 schools are not available as shelters for the public during emergencies.
“We're not manned during the evening hours and there's not enough manpower to do it,” Kennedy said.
Most school employees commute to work and it's not as likely staff will be around to open a school when storms hit, she said. If a storm hits during regular school hours, the facilities “lock down to secure everyone in the building.”
“It's a protection thing. You've got kids there that we're in charge of their safety,” Kennedy said.
“It's not meant to keep people out in inclement weather, but it's a safety feature.”