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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

— 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.

Going forward

“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.

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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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