Three months after a tornado cut a swath of devastation through Moore, Oklahoma, leveling an elementary school where seven children died, state officials and residents are debating the costs and benefits of making safe rooms mandatory in schools.
Like the majority of states in the twister-prone region of the U.S. known as Tornado Alley, Oklahoma currently leaves it up to school districts to decide whether to install storm shelters. Less than one-third of Oklahoma's 1,773 public schools currently have a safe room or shelter for children to ride out a storm, according to a survey conducted by the Oklahoma Department of Education.
But in the aftermath of the Moore tornado, the third monster storm to hit Oklahoma in three years, the state is reconsidering its approach to storm safety amid changing public opinion. In a recent independent poll of Oklahoma voters, 75% said they support the idea of requiring at least all primary schools have tornado shelters.
State Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat from Rush Springs, a small town 55 miles southwest of Moore, got the blessing of the legislature in June to study the feasibility of retrofitting all Oklahoma public schools with shelters that meet Federal Emergency Management Agency specifications.
"If we mandate that students are in school, we must provide a safe and secure environment for them and the staff as well," said Mr. Dorman, who hopes to fund the program with a statewide bond initiative, FEMA money and private funds. After a disaster, FEMA makes funds available for what it calls hazard mitigation projects such as storm shelters, but in the past 13 years, those funds have built only 85 school safe rooms in the state.
Such an undertaking would come with a steep price tag-estimated to be more than $1 billion, in a state with an annual state budget of about $7 billion.
Even in Moore, a suburb south of Oklahoma City, where students began a new school year Friday, there are mixed feelings about whether the cost of putting shelters in the 30 or so schools that don't have them is worth the expense. Only three schools in the city have shelters, including an elementary school that was rebuilt after being leveled in a 1999 tornado.
Two elementary schools were destroyed by the tornado in May, and they are being rebuilt with safe rooms while the students attend classes at other schools. The tornado also destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Moore.
Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said he would expect a lot of resistance in his city if a shelter mandate came down. "The cost is astronomical and the school districts, which are funded with property taxes, are short on funds as it is," Mr. Lewis said.
Before the deaths in May, a tornado hadn't killed a child in a school building in Oklahoma since at least 1950, according to the National Weather Service, whose records only go back to that date. According to the book "Significant Tornadoes: 1680-1991," by Thomas P. Grazulis, who runs the Tornado Project, a research firm, the latest tornado-related student death in an Oklahoma school occurred in 1945.
Depending on the size of the school and how a shelter is constructed, safe rooms can range in price from about $500,000 to $1 million. It cost Oklahoma's Deer Creek Public Schools $850,000 a decade ago to add a 50-by-80-foot practice gymnasium made from reinforced concrete to a middle school that now doubles as a FEMA-approved storm shelter. A FEMA grant covered a significant portion of the cost.
Since 1990, all of the schools in Edmond, a suburb north of Oklahoma City, have been built with shelters and safe rooms. In the aftermath of the Moore tornado, the district is now considering adding them to older schools, said David Goin, superintendent of the Edmond Public Schools.
Still, Oklahoma officials said any attempt to require that all new and existing schools have shelters will undoubtedly be controversial.
Alabama became the only state to pass a law requiring new schools be built with safe rooms in 2010. After a series of deadly twisters raked the middle of the country in 2011, it expanded the law to include new buildings on college campuses. After a tornado swept through Joplin, Mo., two years ago, killing more than 160 people and demolishing six schools, the school board decided to outfit all the schools with shelters, even those that were undamaged. It is paying for the $209 million reconstruction with a mix of insurance money, state emergency funding, private donations and FEMA funds, as well as a $62 million bond issue voters narrowly passed.
"We did it for both safety and mental-health reasons," said C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin School District. "With the amount of trauma our community suffered, there is no way we could explain to our parents why we were building safe rooms in one school and not another."
In Moore, which has 23,000 students, school officials would also like to include safe rooms, but "it all boils down to finances," said Jimi Fleming, a spokesman for the school district. "Just a month before the tornado, we were deciding how to make all the windows in our schools bulletproof," Mr. Fleming said. "Now it's storm shelters. Pick your battle."
Meanwhile, some parents who lost children at Moore's Plaza Towers Elementary School aren't waiting for government solutions. They have teamed up with a local nonprofit group, Shelter Oklahoma Schools, to raise private funds for school storm shelters. The charity has collected $2 million so far.
"When you take your children to school, they are supposed to come home," said Brandie Candelaria, whose 9-year-old daughter, Antonia, died when the tornado struck the school.
Ms. Candelaria, who lived just blocks away from the elementary school, added that she could have retrieved her child the afternoon of the tornado, but assumed that at a public school, "she was safer than we were in our rickety old home."