MOORE — The two elementary schools hit by the EF5 tornado May 20 were typical of schools built in the same period, a researcher with the National Institute of Standards and Technology says.
The resulting destruction was typical as well.
“We don't address tornadoes in today's building codes. They are not a covered hazard ... except for design of storm shelters or nuclear facilities,” said Marc Levitan, a civil engineer who leads research and development for the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program at the institute.
Levitan led a team of three institute members and a member from the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman who studied the two Moore Public School District sites and the Moore Medical Center site May 22-24.
The institute deployed the team as part of its Disaster and Failure Studies Program to collect information, including the physical performance of the buildings and their designated safe areas.
Both Plaza Towers Elementary, 852 SW 11 in Moore, and Briarwood Elementary, 14901 S Hudson in Oklahoma City, performed as Levitan would expect for schools of their era hit by a strong tornado. Seven children died at Plaza Towers.
“Our goal is to look at the bigger picture and learn lessons for the entire nation to improve building and emergency response codes, standards and practices,” Levitan said.
He said the 2015 International Building Code will require storm shelters be built in most schools in high tornado hazard areas going forward.
“We need to move in the direction of making buildings more resistant to tornadoes and/or having storm shelters,” Levitan said.
Shane Speegle, the city of Moore's development services manager, said the city uses the 2009 International Building Code adopted by the state of Oklahoma. He expects the state to adopt the 2015 code and the city to follow suit.
But Moore school officials aren't waiting. Plans for the new Plaza Towers and Briarwood schools include storm shelters.
Superintendent Robert Romines said construction is on schedule for all district facilities destroyed or damaged in the tornado — the two elementary schools, the athletic complex at Highland East Junior High School, and the district's technology center and administrative offices.
“We understand there are a lot of opinions out there about our new construction and our old construction,” Romines said. “We've got wonderful architects and general contractors who are trying to build structures that are bigger and better than what was there before.”
Plaza Towers was built in the mid-1960s and Briarwood in the mid-80s, Romines said.
John Joyce, with Engineering Solutions in Oklahoma City, said he was among the structural engineers from across the nation who studied the damage at Briarwood.
Joyce said examining a building hit by a tornado is a common practice because it gives experts the opportunity to see things they wouldn't otherwise, and to learn.
“I was surprised at the lack of reinforcement inside the masonry walls,” he said.
Perhaps the plans called for more reinforcement, but weren't carried out, Joyce said.
“Even in a brand-new building (sometimes) things in the plan don't happen,” he said.
“We attempted to get the architectural and engineering drawings, but weren't able to track those down,” Levitan said. Speegle said the city code office keeps records only for five years.
“For buildings of that period, in our experience, it's not uncommon for walls to be unreinforced or minimally reinforced,” Levitan said.
He has studied storm damage to schools in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Kansas and Missouri.
When school officials designate a safety area to go to in storm, “unless they have a specially designed storm shelter or safe room, they're just trying to pick the best available spaces to use,” Levitan said.
The overwhelming majority of existing buildings aren't going to stand up to an EF5 tornado, he said.