NORMAN — Norman has officially closed its public storm shelters. City council members took the action this week based on a recommendation from the fire chief that residents adopt a “shelter in place” philosophy.
The risks of getting to the schools formerly designated as shelters outweigh the benefits, James Fullingim said, and the shelters do not meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency's “tornado safe” standards.
“The schools are no safer than the average residential structure,” Fullingim said.
In the past, the city had designated public shelters at Whittier and Irving middle schools, Cleveland Elementary School and Little Axe High School, but none is certified as a safe shelter, the fire chief said.
Council members had decided informally in the spring that this year's tornado season would be the last that the schools would be open as shelters. Tuesday, they voted to make the decision official.
The deadly outbreak of tornadoes in May demonstrated that schools are not as safe as people believed and that being in a vehicle and trying to get to a shelter when time is running out is more dangerous than “sheltering in place,” Fullingim said.
Everyone who died in the May 31 tornado was in a vehicle, he said.
“People were panicked and the roadways were jammed,” Fullingim said.
Norman has experienced problems at the shelters in the past, he added, because of overcrowding and people wanting to bring their pets.
“We have had people standing outside storm shelters when the storm hit because the shelters were full,” he said.
Fullingim said residents should develop personal emergency plans for themselves and their families. Going to a neighbor's shelter or finding the lowest, most protected spot in a home is safer than being in a vehicle trying to get to a public shelter or trying to outrun a storm, he said.
Resident Mark Campbell said closing the public shelters left people who live in apartments or those who ride public buses at risk.
“Where are we supposed to go?” he asked. “I live on the second floor of an apartment building with a vinyl bathtub. Just because you can't protect everybody, you are not going to protect anybody.”
Harold Heiple said he approved of the council's action “because you have labeled structures storm shelters that are not storm shelters.”
By doing so, it puts more people at risk, he said.
“If my wife and I are destroyed while sheltering in our house, that's two people who are killed. I'd rather that happen than 200 people be destroyed who thought they were safe.”
Where are we supposed to go? I live on the second floor of an apartment building with a vinyl bathtub. Just because you can't protect everybody, you are not going to protect anybody.”