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Structural faults found in destroyed Moore elementary school, engineer says

A structural engineer and University of Oklahoma assistant professor said Briarwood Elementary, which was destroyed in the May 20 tornado in Moore, had some structural deficiencies, including nonreinforced walls and a lack of connection between masonry walls and support beams.
by Jennifer Palmer Published: February 21, 2014
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In what remained of Briarwood Elementary School after May 20, Chris Ramseyer, a structural engineer, immediately noticed deficiencies.

Walls lacking reinforced concrete. An anchor bolt pulled from the ground. In several places, the 30-year-old school had no connection between the masonry wall and support beam.

Ramseyer, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, was part of a group of structural engineers that combed through the debris left at the site of the tornado-damaged school. He presented the preliminary findings during an interim legislative study Sept. 26, and the analysis will be detailed further in an American Society of Civil Engineers and the Structural Engineering Institute report. The report is expected to be released next month.

“I would have expected something a little more robust,” Ramseyer told legislators.

On May 20, an EF5 tornado tore through Moore, damaging two elementary schools in its path. At Plaza Towers Elementary, 852 SW 11 in Moore, seven children died. Everyone inside Briarwood Elementary, 14901 S Hudson in Oklahoma City, survived. Neither school had a tornado shelter.

The team didn’t visit Plaza Towers out of respect for the victims.

Common practice

Though Ramseyer’s findings appear to fault Briarwood’s construction, another structural engineer who was part of the team said deficiencies pointed out by Ramseyer, like the lack of reinforcing concrete in the walls, weren’t uncommon building practices at the time. Building the school to today’s standards still wouldn’t guarantee it could have withstood the 200-mile-an-hour winds that accompany an EF5 tornado, said John Joyce, with Engineering Solutions in Oklahoma City.

“Anytime somebody looks at a building after a tornado and says, ‘If that would have been done differently, the structure would have stood.’ That’s a pretty dramatic conclusion to come to,” Joyce said Friday.

He said in a Feb. 1 story in The Oklahoman that he was surprised by the lack of reinforcement inside the masonry walls and said that perhaps the building plans called for more reinforcement and those plans weren’t carried out.

“Even in a brand-new building, (sometimes) things in the plan don’t happen,” he said.

Building plans for the two schools weren’t immediately available.

Plans for the new Plaza Towers and Briarwood schools include storm shelters.