The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 15, 2013

Tornado wary schools get money for shelters

Joy Hampton
CNHI News Service

MOORE, Okla. — Schools in this Oklahoma City suburb devastated by a tornado last spring will soon get $500,000 to build safe rooms to protect students and teachers from future storms.

Shelter Oklahoma Schools, a nonprofit created after the May 20 tornado that killed 24 people in Oklahoma City and suburban Moore, plans to give the money to Moore's schools on Dec. 9, said Mark McBride, a state legislator and one of the group's cofounders.

Among those killed in the EF-5 tornado were seven students huddling from the storm in Moore's Plaza Towers Elementary. Another school, Briarwood Elementary, was also heavily damaged.

McBride said he and a fellow Republican legislator, Jon Echols, watched as rescue crews searched the rubble of Plaza Towers for the missing students. The lawmakers launched the nonprofit with a local businessman, John Hunt, soon thereafter, having decided it would be faster than waiting for the Legislature to act.

“We were looking for a private sector solution to a problem,” said McBride, noting that legislators also have been in talks with Gov. Mary Fallin's office about improving school safety.

The non-profit quickly raised $200,000 from a car dealer, Norman Chrysler Jeep Dodge, as well as $500,000 from the oil and gas company Apache Corp., which pledged additional matching contributions.

Three of Moore's newest elementary schools do not have safe rooms, nor were shelters planned in schools under construction, though those plans have since been revised.

The nonprofit is giving money to other districts, as well.

The group donated $25,000 to a rural school near Chickasha, southwest of Oklahoma City, where students had already raised $27,000 for a shelter.

Next week it plans to give $100,000 each to schools in Drummond, about 90 miles north of Oklahoma City, and Calumet, about 40 miles west of Oklahoma City. Both are building new classrooms and have since added saferooms to those plans, said McBride.

The nonprofit is also giving $100,000 to a small independent district in southwest Oklahoma City, Western Heights.

The nonprofit is still taking donations and passing them to schools. McBride said the group has no administrative costs - funds are held by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation - so all of the money it collects is used to build shelters.

When the storm hit last May, Gov. Mary Fallin said 100 schools in the state - out of 1,752 - had safe rooms or shelters. Yet, Oklahoma is one of the most tornado-prone areas of the country.

Part of "Tornado Alley," the state averages 62 tornadoes per year, according to records kept by the National Climatic Data Center from 1991 to 2010.

It has withstood 7 of the 59 strongest tornadoes - rated F-5 or EF-5, based on damage and wind estimates - that have hit the United States since 1950, according to the National Storm Prediction Center. Those include the May 20 tornado that hit Moore and Oklahoma City.

The group's website is www.shelteroklahomaschools.org.

Joy Hampton writes for The Norman, Okla., Transcript