Could Local Nonprofit End Debate Over School Tornado Shelters?

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You may remember tornado drills in school as a kid. At most schools, the drill was simple: either go to a certain part of the building considered to be strongest (often the gym, which generally has no windows) or get under your desk and put your head down. Schools generally count on taking students away from large windows and assuming a head-protected position to survive tornadoes, but that approach led to tragedy last year—and sparked off a major debate over tornado shelters for schools.

On May 20, 2013 a tornado ripped across central Oklahoma just south of Oklahoma City. One of the many buildings the tornado hit was Plaza Towers Elementary. Like most states, Oklahoma generally doesn’t provide tornado shelters for schools and Plaza Towers was no exception. Seven children died in the tornado and many more were injured.

To many critics of the school system, those children could have been better protected. While tornadoes were once unstoppable killers, and still are for people caught by surprise with nowhere to hide, effective tornado shelters now exist. Increasingly, communities and large corporations—even private residents—are investing in tornado shelters in areas where tornadoes are common. These shelters can reliably withstand wind, debris and even a direct hit from a tornado, saving those inside.

That has led many parents and citizens to demand tornado shelters for schools. Had Plaza Towers had a real tornado shelter, they say, all of the children would have survived safely. The school districts of Oklahoma don’t necessarily disagree, but they offer a pragmatic answer: where will the funding come from?

That led one group of citizens to take action. Tornado shelters are no longer prohibitively expensive, and many believe that tornado shelters for schools should be a given. That led to the forming of a nonprofit dedicated to protecting students called - Shelter Oklahoma’s Schools.

SOS has created a fund and says its mission is to “work with local schools and municipalities to build or fortify storm shelters across the state.” The organization is pursuing grants as well as donations from the public to fund tornado shelters for schools, because the schools themselves cannot afford it.

Is it a perfect solution? In an ideal world, perhaps school districts would be given the money needed to provide tornado shelte­­­rs for schools themselves. But until that happens, Shelter Oklahoma’s Schools seems to be doing important work that could save lives.