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Oklahoma tornadoes: Thousands sought refuge in public buildings

Tempers flared at some city-designated shelters in central Oklahoma, while more than 5,000 Edmond residents rode out Tuesday's storm in schools across the city.
BY PAUL MONIES Published: May 26, 2011

Thousands of people found shelter in public buildings during Tuesday's deadly outbreak of tornadoes, but others were initially turned away or saw tempers flare at crowded public shelters as the storm bore down.

Most small towns across Oklahoma have designated public shelters, but for many urban and suburban residents the options are muddled. There's no single list kept by officials of public shelters in the Oklahoma City metro area.

It's partly a liability issue and partly a public safety issue. Whatever the reason, public emergency shelters have fallen out of favor.

Oklahoma City, Moore and Edmond do not have public shelters. That's expected to be an increasing trend with cities, said Moore Emergency Management Director Gayland Kitch.

“You're going to find it's a short list, and it's getting shorter,” Kitch said. “The cities that have them are trying to get out of the business.”

Kitch said people place themselves in greater danger by traveling to a public shelter. Many times, they are safer if they stay in their homes and take precautions.

“People look at the devastation of the May 3 (1999) tornado and ask, ‘How did people survive?'” Kitch said. “The truth is that hundreds who stayed in their homes survived.”

Thousands seek safety in schools

Edmond has a recorded message line telling residents the city does not have designated emergency shelters. The message offers tornado safety tips and advises people to have a plan before bad weather arrives.

On Tuesday, between 5,000 and 6,000 people — and many of their pets — sought shelter at 22 Edmond Public Schools, said Associate Superintendent Brenda Lyons.

The schools are not usually open to the public as emergency shelters, but officials decided to open them because of the severity of the storms and the time of day. Most students had left for the day when the decision was made about 3 p.m. to keep schools open for the community, Lyons said.

“Everything was in the right place at the right time to make this decision, which is not one we normally make,” Lyons said. “In some schools, especially with the smaller areas, it got pretty stuffy, but they could go out into hallways when the weather lightened up and it wasn't as serious.”

Tempers flare

at some shelters

In Midwest City, tempers flared as some city-designated emergency shelters hit capacity, said Police Chief Brandon Clabes. There are three public shelters in Midwest City: City Hall, a fire station on 801 S Westminster and the Reed Center, a conference center near Interstate 40 and Sooner Road.

“In the height of the storm, the (City Hall) shelter was over capacity, Clabes said. “There were people in walkers and wheelchairs. We had to put them somewhere.”

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