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State will need help tackling issue of safe rooms in every school

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: June 13, 2013

A chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard, to boot. This was a Republican Party promise made in a 1928 presidential campaign ad.

The Republicans running Oklahoma's state government are mulling ways to put tornado shelters in all public schools — safe rooms within schools and/or traditional cellars in the schoolyard, to boot.

Fifty-six Oklahoma schools were damaged or destroyed in May tornadoes. Given that seven students died at Moore's Plaza Towers Elementary on May 20, a statewide school safety plan that could become a promise is a serious attempt to address fears of a repeat. But just as Washington can't really guarantee a chicken in every pot or a Kia in every carport, the state can't address this issue alone.

EF5 tornadoes are relatively rare, even in Oklahoma. Tornado touchdowns during school hours are relatively uncommon. These truths must be weighed when considering the $1 billion-plus it would take to put a shelter in every school. Still, the loss of young lives in Moore stunned even tornado-hardened Oklahomans, much less those who live outside Tornado Alley and can't understand why our schools mostly lack storm shelters.

Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, thinks the state should take the lead in developing a model program to put shelters in every school. In an interview with Oklahoma Watch, Ashwood admitted the task will be daunting and expensive. Few of the shelters would cost less than $350,000. Some could run up to $1 million.

More than 1,500 buildings would need a shelter. A top-down approach (as opposed to purely local initiatives) would run into the problem of prioritization — which is to say that politics would enter the equation rather quickly. “How would you set priorities of putting a safe room in this school as opposed to that school?” Ashwood asked.

Even if the funding were entirely local, the priority dilemma would be present in larger school districts. But this isn't a challenge that state and local school officials can shirk. Every anniversary observance on May 20 in Moore will remind Oklahomans that school kids weren't protected.

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by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Gary Pierson, President and CEO of The Oklahoma Publishing Company; Christopher P. Reen, president and publisher of The Oklahoman; Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news; Christy Gaylord...
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