Few schools using FEMA funding to build saferooms after Moore tornado

CHANDLER, Okla. – It’s been almost a year since the Moore tornado and school districts across our region have been focusing on building safer schools.

The lives lost on that day were a sobering reminder of what we have always known: tornadoes can be deadly.

Twenty-four Oklahomans died, including seven school children.

The students were in their elementary school because there was no saferoom at Plaza Towers Elementary.

In Joplin, Missouri, dozens of districts are building saferooms with millions of dollars in FEMA Hazard Mitigation grants.

In Oklahoma, FEMA sent $16 million in grant money following the Moore tornado but so far no districts have built saferooms with those millions.

“A lot of (school districts) are waiting to see what will happen as far as new legislation or anything else,” Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said.

Ashwood approves the grant applications that come in.

Since the May 3, 1999 disaster, 65 school districts have applied for and built saferooms with those federal dollars.

However, a surprisingly low number of districts have applied since the Moore tornado.

“The best way to get any kind of federal money is to get the application in and then to wait for the disaster money,” Ashwood said. “The thing about Oklahoma is we have plenty of disasters. There will be money in the future. If you have an application on the shelf then we can probably get it funded.”

Only two school districts and one college have applied for FEMA grant money since last May; Seminole State College, Chandler Public Schools and Prague Schools.

At Chandler Schools, the architect plan is complete and the application is in.

The district is planing to build two elementary saferooms as soon as the FEMA portion of their funding is approved.

- The price tag for the projects is $1,842,536.
– FEMA will pay 75 percent  which is $1,381,902.
– So, the district will be left with just $460,634.

Because of the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant program, a small school district like Chandler, with just 1,200 students PreK through 12th grade, can afford two $1 million saferooms.

“You know, when parents send their kids to school in the morning, they want them to come back at night and I’ve raised three daughters in this school and we all feel that way,” Superintendent Wayland Kimble said.

The district passed its bond issue last year.

It is collecting its portion of the funding, the 25-percent match.

However, construction can’t start until OEM and FEMA approve the project.

The lengthy, complicated approval process may be one reason more districts haven’t applied.

“I understand that sometimes the wheels grind slowly,” Kimble said. “I think I have a pretty good grasp on that. But it would be nice if a little bit of reassurance that it might be around the corner or something. Right now we just don’t know much.”

School districts around Oklahoma have spent the past year making important changes to their tornado safety plans.

In Moore, the district is building three elementaries with saferooms.

In Midwest City they have an aggressive plan to bus students to saferooms if the risk is severe.

In Blanchard, the city council considered a city sales tax proposal to fund shelters. According to the school superintendent the sales tax measure failed. The district is considering other options for funding.

In Edmond, they are considering a plan to build saferooms at every school in a future bond issue.

LIST: Schools with safe rooms