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.
Conversations will take place on how to mitigate the loss of life. Included in the discussion are ways to make shelters multifunctional. Traditional schoolyard cellars have no purpose other than shelter. Safe rooms that double as classrooms, labs or whatever are more practical. All new school buildings should include safe rooms, which will increase the price but magnify the protection.
This still leaves the problem of existing schools. Addressing the problem will take leadership from folks like Ashwood but mainly from local school boards, superintendents and principals. Communities must come together to build shelters by passing bond issues and by volunteering labor and materials. Local governments shouldn't excessively regulate construction.
Ashwood: “We have to have something broader and different and new and innovative that really gets all of the partners together and says this is a priority ... Many communities have an ordinance that requires a safe room in new school construction, but not every community does. Is that something we need to look at, at the state level? We ought to discuss it.”
Indeed we should, but memories of Moore — while they will never go away — will fade as the storm season gives way to the heat of summer. What is a top priority now could seem less so in a few months.
Ashwood's biggest challenge may not be to find the money to put a shelter in every school. It might instead be keeping shelters atop the priority list for state and local governments.