Tornado protection in local schools: It's time to consider options

Tornado protection in local schools: It's time to consider options

May 26th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Funerals began late last week for the 24 people killed by a massive tornado that mauled Moore, Okla., on Monday. Seven of those funerals were for children killed at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Plaza Towers was one of several schools in the town that did not have a shelter, or "safe space," built into it.

Now many in Moore and elsewhere are wondering why shelters, or safe spaces, are not designed into every new school - or business, or home - in Moore or anywhere else in the United States where tornadoes are prevalent, such as Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley.

After dozens of tornadoes raked the Chattanooga region in April 2011 and more swirled through in 2012, there was brief talk here about a need for storm shelters.

No new-school discussions have picked up the "safe space" flag, but at least one company on Amnicola Highway, NA Industries, installed an above-ground, prefabricated shelter on its grounds.

For the most part, "talk" about tornado safety here has remained just that.

Part of the reason may be experience: The Midwest has been a tornado chute for more than a century, but now weather experts believe the alley may be shifting or broadening to the east.

Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, says the "alley" is forming a long L into the Southeast.

But shifting paths or not, Carbin said tornadoes in recent years have caused more fatalities in the South than in the Midwest.

Oklahoma officials say 20 percent of Sooner State structures have shelters. The number is much lower in Tennessee - especially in East Tennessee where many believed until recently that tornadoes didn't happen here.

For Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb of 56,000, the Monday twister was the second bullseye hit by an F5 tornado. The first occurred in 1999.

Moore's mayor, Glenn Lewis, said that's two too many to ignore. He now will seek to mandate that new home construction have underground storm shelters, which adds about $4,000 to construction costs per household.

After the 1999 tornado, Moore city officials helped residents get federal aid if they wanted to build shelters, but an ordinance mandating shelters would significantly boost the city's level of precaution, the mayor said.

Alabama is the only state that requires "safe spaces" to be built in new schools, according to the National Storm Shelter Association. That law was passed after a tornado in 2007 killed eight children.

Officials here have said local tornado chances do not meet the risk threshold for spending extra money on shelters.

But it seems penny-wise and pound foolish to be willing to close schools and businesses for a snowflake but ignore the severe tornado-spawning storms we seem to be receiving more and more often.

A thoughtful engineering look at each new school and business and home with an eye for a super-strong gym structure or reinforced central hallway should be a minimal exercise.

Our families are worth it. So were those in Moore, Okla.