State officials have released a list of 85 public schools in Oklahoma that spent anywhere from $76,000 to more than $1 million per school to build safe rooms for students.
In each case, the lion’s share of the cost was paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The list, provided by the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, doesn’t include all schools with safe rooms, but it does show that such schools are scattered around the state. There are more than 1,800 public schools in Oklahoma.
The school on the list that spent the most money was not a K-12 school; it was East Central University in Ada, which spent nearly $2 million on safe-room protection; three-fourths of the cost was paid with federal money.
A K-12 school system that spent significant money was McLoud Public Schools, east of Oklahoma City. Its lengthy effort to built safe rooms testifies to the benefits and unforeseen pitfalls of constructing a large storm-proof refuge.
The district spent $1.3 million on a safe room for its elementary school and $915,000 on one for its high school and middle school campus. Safe rooms have reinforced walls that can withstand tornado and hurricane winds but also are used for regular purposes.
The McLoud district’s elementary-school safe room opened last year and the high school one about two years ago.
It took McLoud more than a decade to get the safe rooms funded and built, said Rob Griffin, assistant superintendent.
The district began pursuing the funding from FEMA after the devastating tornado that struck Moore in 1999, when federal grants for shelters became more available.
“It was something they (district officials) really worked on for a number of years,” Griffin said. “They were lucky enough to get one, then it just so happens that money came up for another one.” The district used money from building funds and other sources to provide a partial match of federal funding.
“I think we all agree, it’s a great asset for the community,” he said.
The high school safe room is a large practice gym with hardwood flooring; the elementary school room is a physical-fitness room with rubberized floors. Neither has seating. The district can fit all 1,800 students plus teachers and staff at both campuses into the safe rooms if need be, Griffin said.
The safe rooms have become community shelters. Local police and fire personnel have keys to be able to open the rooms outside of school hours, which they did on Sunday, May 19, when tornadoes hit in the vicinity, a day before the Moore tornado. “On May 20, we had 250 people in one (room), and 120 in the other. Not everybody in our community has a cellar,” he said.
But the community’s use of the shelters has caused some problems. People come there not only to protect themselves, but their pets. “That’s a huge issue,” Griffin said.
Someone brought dogs to one of the safe rooms, and it turned out one dog had rabies. “The feds found out about it. They were going to give everybody a shot,” Griffin said. That was worked out without having to administer anti-rabies medication, but the issue of pets remains.
Griffin said pets can endanger others and create a liability risk for the district. “It’s (the safe room) built for people, not for animals,” he said. “I’m an animal lover, too, but they’re going to have to stay in the house.”
“This is a small town,” with only two police personnel, he added. “They (the officers) can’t sit there and say, ‘These dogs can’t come in.’” As to who can and will, “that’s the $64,000 question.”