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School-mandated storm shelters could save lives

By Brandon Evans | Published Saturday, May 25, 2013

Teaching in a high school and chasing storms gave Jason McLaughlin a more personal reaction when he learned about the death and destruction earlier this week in Moore, Okla.

“Right after the Moore tornado, I started thinking about it,” he said. “Well, I’ve always thought it. In new schools why aren’t there storm shelters built into them?”

McLaughlin, 31, a math teacher at Bridgeport High School, knows if a tornado touched down on top of his school or any other one in North Texas during the school day, the results would be horrific.

“If it’s something where we have time, we can try to evacuate kids,” he said. “But you don’t always have time. What if the tornado decides to touch down right here? The hallways are full of glass. You can’t go to the gyms because those are going to be the first things to collapse.

“These tornadoes happen all the time. I’ve seen a lot of big ones, but most of them are just in rural areas, not in metropolitan areas. I think we’ve been lucky, and our luck will eventually run out. Every April and May they happen. It’s a law of averages.”

Seven elementary students were killed Monday in Moore – the second time a killer tornado has hit a U.S. school in the last six years. On March 1, 2007, a tornado struck a high school in Enterprise, Ala., killing eight students.

“You think about how much a school costs,” McLaughlin said. “They cost $20 to $40 million. Why isn’t something as important as a storm shelter added on? Think how much we spend on these schools, the amount of tax money spent on these shelters at schools would be almost negligible.

“If you talk about going into existing schools, it could be expensive. But districts go through schools now every 15 to 20 years. If we start now, it may take time, but within 20 years most schools would have shelters. We have to start somewhere.

“It’s parents’ tax dollars that are used to build those schools. Why aren’t those schools built to protect their kids?”

At this point, not one state has a law mandating storm shelters or safe rooms in homes. And only one state, Alabama, has a law requiring all new schools to be built with a “safe space.” That law passed only after the deadly 2007 tornado struck Enterprise High School. But some states that deal with regularly-occurring natural disasters do have measures in place.

“In California, buildings have to be built to earthquake codes,” he said. “And in Florida many homes and businesses have to be built to withstand hurricane winds. And you wonder why we don’t have those for tornadoes, since they are going to be even more devastating when they hit.

“The one in Moore was just moving so slow, crawling along,” he said. “There is nothing left of that school. But look at the storm drains – those are still there. A shelter is the same thing. Just cap it off and add an air vent and you have a storm shelter.”

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