Ever since last spring’s tornado that destroyed two elementary schools and killed seven children in Moore, it’s been hard to escape the debate over school shelters. There are petitions circulating around the state, and everyone seems to have an opinion on the issue. KGOU recently held a panel about funding these shelters and discovered people are approaching this differently than they did following the Moore tornado in 1999.
Stacey McCabe’s son Nicholas was one of the kids who died at Plaza Towers Elementary. She says the state is long overdue when it comes to considering school shelters.
“In ’99, we should’ve looked at this,” McCabe said. “We’re right in the middle of tornado alley. This should have been a very important issue at that time.”
“That’s where those people should have chosen, whoever chose where that money needed to go, they did not choose the right thing. So now seven children have died in the State of Oklahoma and now we get to decide it’s the Republicans against the Democrats. To hooey with all of that,” she said.
McCabe is one of many who believe funding school shelters is a necessity. But part of the reason this discussion never gained much traction in the past, says state Representative Joe Dorman, has to do with when tornadoes generally occur.
“These tornadoes happen at the end of the legislative session,” Dorman said. “It’s impossible to file legislation at the very end.”
Back in 1999, the time crunch kept lawmakers from taking up the issue before the session ended.
“And at that point the legislature was concerned about getting the necessary funding for rebuilding period,” Dorman said. “They had no discussion whatsoever on how to direct that and by the time the next year rolled around, it was off people’s minds.”
But this time, the legislature had an additional week after the storms rolled through in May, so Dorman was able to file a bill before the deadline.
Activists have started a petition drive to get funding for school shelters on the ballot, but if it fails to gather enough support, Dorman says he’s ready to take up the cause.
“I have the legislation filed,” Dorman said. “I will certainly try and take it through the legislature if we don’t get the signatures. I am not confident at all it will pass this legislature. And there’s always an opportunity to come back and start up another effort.”
But Harold Brooks with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says he and his fellow meteorologists aren’t willing to wait to keep children in public schools safe. They’re starting now by evaluating the safety of Norman’s public schools.
Brooks’ wife is a teacher at an area school, and he says the evaluation of that school's plans revealed surprising information.
“So one of the things we’re hoping to try to do is to put together something that will help people identify where their best places are,” Brooks said.
“Because, in fact, we could tell when we looked at the plan at my wife’s school, there were some aspects of that that were legacy probably from 30 years ago. And the building had had serious reconstruction since then and there were some places that were really awful that were being used.”
For Stacey McCabe, the parent whose son died at Plaza Towers Elementary, there’s no discussion more important than the way schools are built.
“That’s where we left our children because they’ve always been told to us that that’s a safe place,” McCabe said. “Our babies died with their heads tucked between their legs and their hands on the backs on their head to be crushed like a bunch of little rocks.”
In the end, even if school shelter advocates are successful and funding comes their way, they realize that shelters won’t magically appear in all schools before the next storm season. That’s why they’re gathering information now and informing the public about safe areas so people won’t be scrambling when the next tornado comes.