Energy company Apache Corp. pledged $500,000 Thursday to help start a nonprofit by two Oklahoma lawmakers to provide safe rooms or storm shelters for schools.
Republican Reps. Jon Echols and Mark McBride said they wanted to help schools be prepared for tornadoes like the ones that hit this week in central Oklahoma.
Seven elementary school students died after Monday's tornado ripped through Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore. They were among 24 people killed by the storm.
“We are all mourning the losses of those children and want to do more to protect our school-aged children moving forward,” McBride, of Moore, said in a news release. “That's why we are forming this 501(c) 3 — we have to provide every school with shelters that can withstand the brunt of tornadoes like this one. Hiding in the interior of a building won't cut it when faced with a tornado on the massive level of the one that hit Moore.”
Echols, of Oklahoma City, said the nonprofit will be formed with the help of the Crowe & Dunlevy law firm and Oklahoma City University's School of Law.
Apache has 369 employees in Oklahoma and bases its regional operations in Tulsa. Rob Johnston, Apache's Central Region vice president, said he hoped the seed funding for the nonprofit would lend some comfort to families when they send their children off to school.
Oklahoma has almost 1,800 schools with buildings of various ages. Retrofitting older schools can be expensive, said Lisa Chronister, an architect and principal with LWPB Architecture in Oklahoma City.
“It's technically feasible, but it's not cost effective,” Chronister said. “You might say the next time you do an addition, you will incorporate that.”
Chronister said all of her firm's work for schools in at least the last decade included safe rooms. More recently, LWPB Architecture has incorporated safe rooms into new high schools in Okarche and Luther and an early childhood center in Chickasha.
“It's not driven by us, it's the clients that want it,” Chronister said.
The firm designed two elementary schools under construction in the Midwest City-Del City School District opening in the 2014-15 school year. The new Midwest City Elementary and Soldier Creek Elementary each have interior music rooms and other auxiliary classrooms that will function as safe rooms for 900 students, teachers and staff, Chronister said.
Del City Elementary School recently built an addition to include a safe room. A number of students and faculty huddled there Monday afternoon as storms passed through central Oklahoma, said Mid-Del Schools spokeswoman Stacey Boyer.
Chronister said some clients in smaller communities also want their school safe rooms to be used by the community in case of emergencies. That isn't always practical in larger communities or urban areas.
“If your gym can hold 2,000 people, what do you tell the 2,001st person?” Chronister said. “Forever, the wisdom was to not try to outrun the storm and stay where you are. Is it wise to encourage people to leave their homes and come out?”
Jeff Mills, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said his group hasn't asked the Legislature specifically to fund safe rooms. But they could be included if money were added to a dormant Building Equalization Fund that dates to 1954.
“There is no revenue stream to fund this much-needed program,” Mills said in an email. “Safe rooms could easily be incorporated and funded through this program.”
During a news conference Thursday, Gov. Mary Fallin said funding for school safe rooms and shelters would be something she was willing to consider after getting through the initial disaster recovery.
“I think it's important, but in the meantime, we're going to be working towards gathering information about which schools do have shelters,” Fallin said.
Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, pushed for a $500 million bond package earlier this week to provide funding for storm shelters at schools and communities. Dorman said money could be administered through existing grant programs from the state Office of Emergency Management.
With the legislative session winding down and many Republicans balking at additional state bonds, the proposal didn't go anywhere. Dorman said Thursday he will ask for an interim study on the issue.
Dorman said he welcomed the nonprofit to be established by his House colleagues. Part of the issue with relying only on local funds for shelters is that many school districts have already reached their bonded capacity, he said.
CONTRIBUTING: Randy Ellis, Staff Writer