INVESTIGATION: OKC schools skip safe rooms, no discussion


OKLAHOMA CITY — In the aftermath of the May 20th tornado where seven Moore school-children died in their school building, Oklahomans want to know why there aren’t more tornado shelters in our schools buildings.

The answer is complicated.

Last month, we traveled to Joplin, Missouri to see how that district put safety first.

Joplin Public Schools applied for federal dollars and equipped every school building in the entire district with a safe room.

“I think my advice to Moore, Oklahoma and those other folks around the country is support your kids. Support your schools. Get as safe of a place as possible. They’re certainly worth it.” said Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff.

There are just a few places to be safe when a large tornado is near.

“If you’re building new construction there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t put a safe room in it.” said engineer Brian Orr.

Sydney AngleNicole Angle’s nine-year-old daughter Sydney was with six of her classmates in a hallway at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore when the walls came crashing down May 20th.

Angle and the other Plaza Towers parents are pushing for more safe room in schools.

They know, like no one else does, the importance of protecting children in school.

“You have to learn how to live broken, and that’s just kind of the way it feels. Your normal is now broken.” said Angle about life after Sydney’s death.

There are a handful of school districts around the Oklahoma City metro with safe rooms in some of their buildings.

Oklahoma City Public Schools has more than 40, 000 students, 2,600 staffer members, 74 school sites and only five safe rooms.

The five existing safe rooms were built about ten years ago as part of MAPS For Kids renovations.

“As I recall about $1.9 million in grants was provided to Oklahoma City Public Schools for safe room construction. That was significant at the time and I think we maximized the potential of what we could do.” said former MAPS project manager, Eric Wenger.

A few years after the MAPS For Kids safe rooms the city passed a $78 bond issue to build brand new elementary gymnasiums at 47 locations.

Not one of them has a safe room.

Not one of the state-of-the-art facilities offers any additional protection for the kids who spend their time there.

“I don’t even know if it was in the discussion. It well could have been in the discussion. That I don’t know.” said district Chief Operations Officer Jim Burkey.

Burkey actually didn’t take the job until after the 2007 bond issue was planned and passed, but he was working as Chief Operations Officer when construction started.

Burkey said safe rooms were not ever considered at any point in the process.

There is no mention of safe rooms in the construction plans or the original architectural directions.

“I cannot find fault with the decision that was made eight or nine years ago, applying 20/20 vision now. There’s all sorts of things that could have been done differently by any organization.” said Burkey.

While Oklahoma City Public Schools passed on the option to build safe rooms in their brand new gyms, other districts did not.

Across Oklahoma, 80 other schools have built safe rooms with FEMA assistance, since 2003.

Here’s a list of every FEMA-funded school safe room in Oklahoma.

FEMA paid for the majority of construction on those projects, on average about 75% of the cost.

Even more districts have built safe rooms without FEMA grant funding.

Burkey admits the decision not to build safe rooms could have been a mis-step on behalf of district administration.

“We can do what we can do right now at this point in time, which we’re going to.” Burkey said.

Oklahoma Emergency Management Director, Albert Ashwood is on a crusade to educate communities about the affordability of school safe rooms.

Ashwood said they are especially reasonable when districts take advantage of federal disaster mitigation funding.

According to OEM, in Oklahoma, we have had FEMA assistance every single year since ’99.

Every single year, there’s funding available for Oklahoma schools to keep kids safe.

I think it’s really a matter of priorities.” Ashwood said. “If you sit back as a school district and say that’s something we can’t afford, then it’s something you’ll never be able to afford regardless of the cost.”

As for Oklahoma City Public Schools, 30 of the elementary gymnasiums are already complete, or well into the construction process.

However, according to the district, they are changing direction for the 15 gyms that remain as part of that 2007 bond issue.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools school board is now looking into the possibility of putting safe rooms in the plans for those facilities before they move ahead with construction.

The gymnasium projects are set to be complete in 2015.