Lawmakers Urge More Safe Rooms for Schools

With state officials acknowledging that two elementary schools destroyed by Monday’s tornado had no safe rooms, some lawmakers began pressing to increase the number of shelters and provide funds to build them.

Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, said Tuesday he is drafting a bill that would authorize $400 million in bond financing to pay for shelters in public schools and an additional $100 million for private homes and group home facilities.

A Senate appropriations panel, meanwhile, voted Tuesday to withdraw up to $45 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund for unspecified emergency-response needs in the aftermath of the EF5 tornado that plowed through Moore and south Oklahoma City. The measure now awaits action by House committee members.

Lawmakers would need to act quickly to approve emergency funding. The Legislature is set to adjourn no later than May 31. The 2014 budget already has been signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin, and emergency funding measures can only be introduced by top legislative leaders.

“We certainly need to get the ball rolling today and hopefully finish this up after Memorial Day,” said Dorman, whose district was struck by a tornado near Chickasha in 2011. “We have time this week and next week to get a significant piece of legislation passed that would address these problems.”

Many House Republicans, including Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, have been reluctant to authorize bond financing for any purposes because it increases the state’s indebtedness.

But Dorman expressed hope that the devastation caused by Monday’s tornado might outweigh those concerns.

“We saw tragedies yesterday that could have been averted in some cases if the schools would have had proper shelters, if individuals would have had access to shelters at their homes, if there would have been public shelters for people to go to,” Dorman said.

Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said Tuesday there were no safe rooms in the two schools leveled by the tornado.

Speaking at a public news briefing, Ashwood said hundreds of schools across the state have installed reinforced tornado shelters, but Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary were not among them.

Ashwood noted, however, that a shelter might not have saved any lives at Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven children died.

Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, in an interview with CNN, said some of the children were in the school’s basement and apparently drowned.

Rep. Mark McBride, whose district includes the two stricken schools, said he wants the Legislature to see what it can do to promote the installation of safe rooms and shelters in public schools.

“I know there are federal dollars available to schools to put those in,” McBride said. “I think it’s something that we really need to look into, so that schools have storm shelters.”

But McBride said lawmakers should proceed cautiously and not necessarily rush to take action before more is known about the availability of shelters and options for providing more.

“I don’t want to stir up something,” he said. “We need to come together as a community right now instead of someone fueling the fire on why and what if.”

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.

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