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Oklahoma schools consider fortifying gyms as storm shelters

by Tim Willert Modified: September 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: September 9, 2013

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.

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by Tim Willert
Education Reporter
Tim Willert is a native Californian with Oklahoma ties who covers education. Prior to moving to Oklahoma in June 2011, he was as an editor for in Century City, Calif., and reported on courts for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and...
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