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Oklahoma tornadoes: Oklahoma City metro-area cities oppose public storm shelters

Several dozen people were turned away May 20 from what was previously a public storm shelter in Midwest City. Public officials said community storm shelters do more harm than good in larger cities. They said everyone is responsible for making their own plans for what to do during a tornado.

With a killer tornado on the ground in Moore and headed toward Midwest City, Marie Foster and about 40 others sought shelter at the Reed Center and its adjoining hotel May 20.

Foster was shocked to see frightened people turned away from what was once a public storm shelter.

Metro communities have gotten out of the business of public storm shelters because of a litany of safety concerns.

Foster said she understands those concerns, but they ring hollow to people who find themselves without shelter when a tornado is bearing down on them.

“There were children standing there, scared,” she said. “It was pouring down rain and hail. People were terrified and asking to come inside. The police officers told them they needed to move on. You are on your own.”

Oklahoma City and many other metro communities never have had public shelters. Others, such as Edmond, Midwest City and Norman, had public storm shelters but have closed them in recent years. The arguments against them are many.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett formed a task force after the May 20 tornado to look at safety options. Cornett said he is focused on what the city can do to protect schoolchildren, but the issue of community shelters will likely come before the group.

“I think there is a consensus that community shelters and the chaos that would surround the last few minutes before an approaching storm would probably create a bigger safety hazard than it would alleviate,” Cornett said. “We can talk about it. We're going to talk about all this in the task force.”

Some rural towns have public shelters. With low populations and no traffic concerns, public shelters can be a viable solution, Moore Emergency Management Director Gayland Kitch said.

But that simply isn't the case with larger cities.

“We don't have anything that has got a big basement,” Kitch said. “We certainly don't have a basement that can hold 55,000 people.”

Capacity is one of the biggest problems with building public shelters, city leaders from several communities agreed.

Yukon Emergency Management Director Frosty Peak said his city has never had public shelters for precisely this reason.

“If a shelter had enough room to fit 1,000 people, what happens to the 1,001st person?” Peak said. “Who would be that cutoff?”

Edmond schools used to open their doors during storms, said Mike Magee, Edmond's emergency management coordinator.

“We had cases where people were traveling too far to reach these shelters only to realize that they were already full,” Magee said.

Coordinating volunteers to run the shelters posed additional problems, especially if a storm hit at night.

In Midwest City, tempers flared during a 2011 storm when the Reed Center, City Hall and a fire station designated as public shelters became overcrowded. A woman who couldn't get in to City Hall broke out a window to get access.

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