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Engineer says schools destroyed in deadly Oklahoma tornado performed as expected

Marc Levitan, a researcher with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, says Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools exhibited typical construction for schools of their time and couldn't have been expected to stand up to an EF5 tornado.
by Kathryn McNutt Modified: February 1, 2014 at 10:00 pm •  Published: February 1, 2014

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.

Minimal reinforcement

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.

by Kathryn McNutt
Higher Education Reporter
Kathryn McNutt covers higher education for The Oklahoman and NewsOK. Since joining the staff in August 2000, she also has worked as the Breaking News editor, Metro editor and assistant Local editor. A native of Oklahoma City, she graduated from...
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