Dozens of first-graders giggled as they sprinted from one end of the heavily reinforced structure to the other end, unaware their new gymnasium was built to withstand 250 mph winds.
Kim Lanier, the longtime superintendent of Oakdale School in northeast Oklahoma City, hopes he never has to test what doubles as a 6,500-square-foot safe room.
“You feel safer because you have a more secure place to go,” Lanier said Thursday. “But it doesn't discount the procedures you need to have to get there.”
Fortified with concrete and rebar and big enough to hold 1,300 people, safe rooms like the one at Oakdale may be the new trend in tornado protection for schools across the state.
In the wake of the devastating May 20 tornado that demolished two schools and killed seven third-graders at Plaza Towers Elementary, school officials throughout Oklahoma are considering whether to incorporate safe rooms into new gym and classroom construction. Nearly two dozen such projects are being considered in Oklahoma City alone.
Safe rooms are considered to be more cost-effective than underground shelters, which require elevators and access for the disabled, and are not used except in emergencies, said Jeff Wegener, co-owner of LWPB Architecture, the Oklahoma City firm that designed the Oakdale safe room.
“It needs to serve more than one function,” Wegener said Friday. “It needs to be a classroom or a hallway or a gym.”
Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state's largest district with 84 schools and 45,000 students, is considering safe rooms with new gym construction at up to 22 elementary schools, officials said.
About six of the gyms are in the early stages of construction. All will be paid for with money remaining from a 2007 bond issue earmarked for new gym construction, according to Jim Burkey, the district's chief operating officer.
“It's timely because the new construction … presents us with an opportunity to look at possibly adding safe rooms to those sites,” he said Thursday. “Also, there is a statewide discussion on the need for safe rooms and how to fund them.”
Burkey said construction bids on each of the projects will include alternate bids for gyms with safe rooms.
Among the schools being considered for a safe room is Cesar Chavez Elementary, the district's largest elementary with 1,006 students. In addition to proposed classroom expansion, which is expected to cost $1,373,000, a proposed gym/safe room could cost nearly $2 million, according to district documents.
The project will be paid for with “leftover” MAPS for Kids funding, district officials said.
Presently, there are five schools in the Oklahoma City school district that have FEMA-certified safe rooms: Wheeler and Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools, Douglass Mid-High and U.S. Grant and John Marshall high schools.
Those safe rooms were paid for with FEMA money after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Burkey said the death and destruction in Moore on May 20 served as a “wake-up call” because the EF5 tornado hit when school was in session.
“We understand that we need to look at what can be done to keep our students and staff safe, and with the opportunity to engage state leaders on the topic the time couldn't be better,” he said.
Lawmakers, including Rep. Joe Dorman, R-Rush Springs, recently said they are launching an initiative petition drive calling for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment that would allow a bond issue to pay for shelters in schools.
The debt service on the $500 million bond would be paid for with the current franchise tax, Dorman said, adding that a constitutional amendment is needed because the state is not allowed to pass issues to benefit other governmental entities such as school districts.
In Piedmont, the planning commission voted unanimously this week to move forward on a proposed ordinance requiring tornado shelters or safe rooms in all future municipal and school buildings. A public hearing is set for Oct. 7.
The school board in Hennessey has discussed the possibility of building a storm shelter in a new Early Childhood Development Center. The estimated cost of the center is $2 million, and Hennessey voters approved a bond issue for construction last spring.
‘A high priority'
Lanier, the Oakdale superintendent, said building the safe room as part of a larger construction project that included the gym and a classroom wing was more cost effective. The project cost about $4 million and was funded by a voter-approved bond.
Since 2003, LWPB Architecture has designed 21 school projects and two day care projects with safe rooms, including Oakdale. Two of those projects — elementary schools in Midwest City and Mustang — are under construction.
The projects include schools in Chickasha, Claremore, Jones, Kingfisher, Luther, Noble, Oakdale, Okarche, Oklahoma City, Sapulpa, Shawnee and Stillwater.
“Safe rooms have usually been a high priority for our school clients,” Wegener said. “However, it is on everyone's mind right now and being discussed more. I suspect there may be more additions planned in the near future to address more safe room construction.”
The cost to build a safe room varies depending on the size of the project, and the safe room is usually is priced as part of larger project that includes classroom and gym construction, said Wegener, who estimated the cost of the Oakdale safe room to be about $100,000.
“Typically, we don't build them by themselves,” he said. “Typically, they're part of a larger project, and they're more affordable when they're part of a larger project.”
‘Still under review'
Neither Plaza Towers nor Briarwood elementary schools in Moore were equipped with shelters when the tornado hit. Also destroyed was the gym at Highland East Junior High.
Each will be rebuilt with safe rooms or safe structures, and both schools are scheduled to be completed for the 2014-15 school year, said Robert Romines, superintendent of Moore Public Schools.
There are 31 schools in the district, including 23 elementary schools and five junior highs.
“We will obviously be assessing all new construction, and as we do we will be reviewing all new construction for safe area, safe room-type structures,” Romines said.
The district is planning to add prekindergarten wings to as many to four and possibly five elementary schools and will consider building safe rooms as part of the construction, Romines said.
The wings would be added at the rate of one per year, said Romines, who declined to identify the schools.
As for the district's existing schools without safe rooms or shelters, the superintendent said “we don't have a definite plan for that.”
“That's something that's still under review,” he said.
After the May 1999 tornado, safe hallways were built in Kelley Elementary School and Westmoore High School with FEMA assistance, Romines said.
In February, voters approved a $120 million bond issue, which Romines said will be used to fund construction of two new elementary schools and a junior high. Also planned is additional gym and band room construction.
“We have sent those plans back to the architects to incorporate those (safe room) designs,” he said. “We've got a lot of building that will be taking place this next school year.”
As for Lanier, he is breathing more easily with a fortified safe room he says the public can use in case of emergency.
But after three decades as a superintendent, he hasn't forgotten the importance of being prepared.
Twice, in 1999 and 2007, tornadoes destroyed structures on the Oakdale campus. Fortunately, no one was hurt because the twisters struck when the school was empty.
“To me, those drills and precautions are just as important as where you go to get safe, because sometimes those are your only options,” he said.