Spring has sprung in central Oklahoma at last, and that means tornado season is here. This past week we had our first set of storms in the northern part of our state, and I’m sure many more will come in the weeks ahead. Technically, tornados can form any month of the year, but statistically the midwest of the United States experiences the most tornados in the spring.

Last year Moore, Oklahoma, experienced a devastating F5 tornado on May 20th. I visited the area three months afterward, and took a series of sobering photos.

The Moore tornado caused some changes in the ways Oklahomans think and act with respect to tornado preparation. Companies which build in-ground tornado shelters in residential homes are backlogged with orders. The wait list is longer than three months for some companies. A petition drive continues to garner support for the construction of tornado shelters in public schools across our state. The newest elementary school under construction in downtown Oklahoma City will include a tornado shelter for a price tag between $500,000 and $750,000. Ironically, while there is residential demand for new tornado shelters as well as cries for protection of children at school, no one seems to be advocating for the availability of public tornado shelters. To the contrary, signs like the following at the United Methodist Church in “The Village” in northwest Oklahoma City are increasingly common. Shelter areas which historically HAVE been available for local residents to use are now closed.

Our church in Edmond has made the same decision. Signs like these appeared on all outside entrances this past week when tornado and severe thunderstorm watches were issued for parts of our state.

These seems both ironic and unfortunate. According to Meteorologist Jonathan Kurtz of the National Weather Service in Norman, “FEMA standards have made it expensive and almost impossible for cities to have shelters… The Oklahoma City Metro area abandoned its shelter two years ago. Because of violence, damage, expenses and pet control of a public shelter, it was more cost effective to fund up to 3,000 individual shelters.”

My hair stylist was caught last year in Midwest City during the tornado outbreak which happened later in May following the May 20th Moore tornado, and was unable to gain entry into a public shelter available there. According to her, the city of Edmond does not have ANY public tornado shelters, and Midwest City had been the only metro-area suburb in the greater Oklahoma City area to have ANY type of public tornado shelter.

According to the June 2013 NewsOK article, “Oklahoma tornadoes: Oklahoma City metro-area cities oppose public storm shelters,”

Oklahoma City and many other metro communities never have had public shelters. Others, such as Edmond, Midwest City and Norman, had public storm shelters but have closed them in recent years. The arguments against them are many…. Some rural towns have public shelters. With low populations and no traffic concerns, public shelters can be a viable solution, Moore Emergency Management Director Gayland Kitch said.

The biggest problem with tornado shelters in cities is capacity: There are too many people who need shelter, so cities opt to provide shelter for no one. This sounds a bit like the Titanic and its lifeboats. If you’re wealthy enough to pay for your own below ground shelter in Oklahoma, you can rest easy when a tornado hits. If you’re poor, you’re apparently out of luck.

According to the same NewsOK article:

Edmond schools used to open their doors during storms, said Mike Magee, Edmond’s emergency management coordinator. “We had cases where people were traveling too far to reach these shelters only to realize that they were already full,” Magee said.

Edmond public schools are no longer available as public shelters during tornados. Our Edmond church has added itself to that list of “once open as a tornado shelter, now closed to everyone.” It’s a situation that seems unjust and unfortunate, especially if you’re in a financial situation where buying your own $5000 below ground residential shelter isn’t realistic or possible.

You might think liability concerns are a reason churches and local governments have shut off public access to potential tornado shelter areas, but according to the June 2013 NPR article, “From Nuclear Fallout To Tornadoes, A Shifting View of Public Shelter Policy in Oklahoma,” that’s not the case:

Legal liability for public shelter providers isn’t an issue. In 2012, Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation that protects businesses, individuals and other entities that provide public shelter during tornadoes and other severe weather.

The same article goes on to explain the Oklahoma state philosophy for tornado protection is “shelter in place.” It’s dangerous to get in your car when a tornado is on the ground, and the LACK of public shelters in communities is believed to discourage travel during severe weather.

Living in a smaller town has some disadvantages, but having shared, public spaces to seek shelter during a tornado is NOT one of them. During tornado season this year, I’m hoping we won’t be wishing we lived in a small town where that was the case.

I know, I know. Some people will probably comment, “Why don’t you just pay to have your own residential shelter?” Believe me, we want to. We just haven’t had the spare thousands of dollars to do that, even with a generous offer from parents to help us offset the costs. Hopefully we’ll be able to install one before our next tornado season. This year, given our budget as well as the backlog of requests faced by local installers, it’s just not going to be possible.

The situation seems even more unfortunate for those Oklahomans who, because of financial situations, have to live in an apartment or mobile home. Building a residential in-ground shelter isn’t an option for them.

I realize overcrowding can be a problem in public shelters, and we don’t want to encourage people to get in their cars during a tornado outbreak, but I think the failure of elected officials and civic representatives to provide MORE rather than FEWER public tornado shelters is a big problem which needs to be addressed. We live in a tornado-prone state. We need to take care of each other in preparing for these unpredictable but also inevitable disasters, not just in small towns but in our bigger cities too.

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