As Oklahoma and Indian country mourn their dead and clean up from the devastating tornadoes that swept through the center of the state during the second half of May, politicians have begun to debate the efficacy of mandating storm shelters in every school.
Seven of the nine children who were killed in the tornado of May 20 perished in their elementary school as they took shelter in a hallway whose wall collapsed on them. Besides Plaza Towers Elementary School, where the young students perished, at least 57 schools have been counted as being either damaged or destroyed.
During the last days of Oklahoma's most recent legislative session, the debate found its way into the halls of the governor's office. On May 21, the day after Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary were destroyed (no one died at the latter school), Representative Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, wrote legislation to establish a $500 million bond to build shelters for schools, businesses and mobile home parks. The measure would have allowed Oklahoma's Office of Emergency Management to administer grants to build the shelters.
But with the session scheduled to end on May 24, and the deadline for introducing new legislation passed, that’s as far as it got.
"I proposed it to the Speaker and the Appropriations Chair the last week of session," said Dorman. "They are the only ones that can introduce bills after the bill-filing deadline. They did not want to pursue that the last week of session."
Representative Scott Martin, R-Norman, Okla., is the appropriations chair for the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Martin did not question the value of Dorman's proposal but said it was an issue of timing.
"It's extremely hard to get a monumental issue like that done with only a few days left in session," Martin said. "That's not to talk about the merits of the issue. I know that Representative Dorman, I assume, will probably file a bill this upcoming session. At that point in time, we'll discuss whether we'll want to go down that path of a bond issue or other things we might use to help out our schools."
According to Martin, discussion would have to include school districts as well as emergency management personnel.
"I think our schools should probably, on a yearly basis, evaluate all of their safety procedures, whether it be for a natural disaster or man-made disaster," said Martin. "We need to work with our local schools and with our state emergency management folks in formulating the best plan for school safety."
Another state that has had its share of tornado tragedy within the past few years is Alabama, which passed a law in 2010 requiring new school construction to include storm shelters. On June 5, Oklahoma City's KFOR-TV reported that Governor Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma, said the state government would not require schools to build shelters.
Fallin spokesperson Alex Wentz cited a potential $2 billion price tag for building shelters in every Oklahoma school—nearly a third of Oklahoma's $7 billion budget. Further, Fallin encourages "serious conversation" with school boards, legislators and private businesses to create a "collaboration with local and municipal governments and the private sector to get more shelters built,” Wentz said.
Part of the basis of this collaboration is that schools would maintain "local control" with the encouragement of "local school boards to consider safe rooms if they can afford it," Wentz added.
On May 30 the Oklahoma House of Representatives announced that a bipartisan group of legislators will collaborate with private businesses to create Shelter Oklahoma Schools (SOS), a nonprofit entity to raise the needed funds for shelters. Within a week the website had raised $1,029,752.99.
With the next legislative session not beginning until January 2014, Dorman isn't waiting until the session begins to start working on this issue. Dorman said that he would request "an interim study this summer" and would consider collecting signatures to place the issue on the ballot for next November.
"I honestly don't have much confidence in my colleagues in the legislature to pass something," he said. "Ultimately, it would be a tax increase to pay for this. There has been no willingness to do any type of tax increase."
More on the Oklahoma tornadoes and relief efforts: