A safe room in every Oklahoma school -- that's what state leaders are calling for, in the wake of the devastating -- and deadly -- May 20th tornado. Seven Plaza Towers elementary school students were killed when the EF5 tornado tore their school building apart.
The deaths quickly sparked the universal safe room initiative, but, at the same time, raised questions about a safe room program already in existence. They also have inspired debate over the larger question of whether it makes financial sense to put safe rooms in public schools.
There are approximately 1,700 schools in Oklahoma. There is no precise count of the number of schools with storm shelters or safe rooms that meet federal standards, but it appears to be less than ten percent.
Parents are among those who want to see that percentage go up. Parents like Rick Stroud:
"I was on the interstate, trying to get here."
On May 20th, Stroud was on a mission to pick up his 5th grade daughter, Claire.
"It was chaos," said Claire.
In the hallways of her Moore elementary school, children were crying, and teachers and parents were worried -- the massive tornado was heading their way.
"By the time I got here, that was it," explained Stroud, "We just had to close the doors and hunker down, and hope for the best."
As it turned out, Claire's school, Kelley elementary, wasn't hit -- not this time, anyway.
May 3, 1999 was a different story. Kelley was wiped out. But when it was rebuilt, it became one of the first schools in the state to be equipped with a safe room.
The 'doors' Rick Stroud referred to are specially fortified roll-down doors that are part of the school's safe room system, which provided a layer of security that was fully appreciated May 20th.
"It doesn't take the terror out of it," said Stroud, "but I would say that the comfort would have to be much greater."
Kelley principal Dena Taylor was also grateful to have been able to move everyone into safe areas, but wishes that her counterparts at Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools could have done the same thing.
"I wish every school in the state of Oklahoma would have a safe room," said Taylor.
Empire public schools, in Stephens County, is getting one.
"We had to do something to provide for the safety of the kids," said Vicki Davison, Empire's superintendent.
The tiny district is building an $850,000 safe room, with a lot of help from FEMA and its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
Since 1999, the program has been offering a three-to-one federal match for the construction of safe rooms and other hazard mitigation measures.
"The ability to apply for safe rooms for schools has always been there," stated Albert Ashwood, state director of Emergency Management.
But, out of $92 million that's flowed into Oklahoma through HMGP in the last 14 years, $26 million has been used for school safe rooms, building safe rooms in a total of 85 schools. That's just five percent of all Oklahoma schools.
Ashwood says, nationally, that's a pretty good number. But he admits it falls short here in tornado alley.
"Is it something we want to pat ourselves on the back for? No," said Ashwood. "I mean, we can all do better than this."
Ashwood acknowledges, because tornadoes strike most often after school lets out, the state has been more focused on using the mitigation grants to put safe rooms in homes, not schools. But he feels now is the time to make schools a priority.
"What we have to do is we have to come forward with a proposal that's out of the box, innovative, something that hasn't been done before," said Ashwood, " because whatever has been done before hasn't gotten a safe room in every school."
Representative Jon Echols is among a group of lawmakers and private businessmen who have done more than make a proposal -- they've already launched their initiative. Shelter Oklahoma Schools is a 501C-3 non-profit set up to collect and disperse funds -- private donations, primarily, but public dollars, as well -- with the specific goal of putting a safe room in every school.
"When you look at the devastation we've seen," said Rep. Echols, "there is a need in schools."
Echols says, as of July 5th, Shelter Oklahoma Schools had received almost $2 million in donations.
For Echols and others pushing the safe schools initiative, this is a very emotional issue, since children's lives are potentially at stake. But there are others who say the initiative is too expensive -- $1 billion, at least -- to be driven by emotion.
"As an economist," remarked Kevin Simmons, "we're always told that our methods are too analytical and unfeeling."
But Simmons, an economist at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, says history shows that fewer than five percent of tornado fatalities have occurred in schools, while 30 percent have been in homes, and 40 percent in mobile homes. Based on this data, and since funds are likely to be limited, Simmons says it makes sense to consider building safe rooms where fatalities can be avoided most cost-effectively.
"If we use historical data to estimate the number of fatalities we would avoid [in schools] over, say, the next fifty years, it comes out to about $50 million per avoided fatality," explained Simmons. "If we used the same program for mobile homes and had an underground or community shelters for mobile homes across the entire state of Oklahoma, the cost per avoided fatality would be less than $5 million -- and keep in mind, children live in mobile homes."
"You're going down a very slippery slope," countered OEM director Ashwood, "when you start trying to say the price of one life is different than the price of two lives over here. The bottom line is, they're all too costly."
And those who lived through May 20th feel strongly no price is too high for the peace of mind afforded by a safe school.
"If we had to be in a school," Rick Stroud told his daughter, "[Kelley elementary] would be the place we wanted to be."