Tornado shelters in Texas schools tabled amid talks of cost

Tornado shelters in Texas schools tabled amid talks of cost

(Texas) Winds up to 210 mph bombarded an elementary school in Oklahoma in 2013, killing seven students. Two years later, winds of 165 mph dismantled a Texas elementary school.

Districts located in "Tornado Alley" know all too well the risks presented by tornados–but the Fort Worth, Texas City Council set aside plans to adopt a new, albeit costly, aspect of a building code Tuesday requiring storm shelters in new school structures–despite enthusiasm for the plan from some councilmembers.

Instead, the council agreed to table that component until more research is done on the impact to the local school districts.

“It is a building code safety issue and a community safety issue–we have to protect our children,” Councilman Sal Espino said in an email to Cabinet Report. “But in light of the concerns expressed by Councilmember and school districts, the city council tabled implementation of the code provisions in question affecting the school districts.”

The new building code was poised to include the most recent recommendations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency following the release of a 2012 study of the effect of deadly tornadoes in Joplin, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Alabama in 2011.

Under FEMA guidelines, a shelter must be able to withstand winds in excess of 250 miles per hour, and operate independently from the rest of the building for at least two hours with electricity, drinkable water and working bathrooms. Areas within the school, including classrooms or the library, can be designated as a storm shelter–but the shelter size must be, at minimum, the number of people in the school multiplied by 5-square-feet.

Texas averages 155 tornadoes a year, and Fort Worth, specifically, has had 90 tornadoes in nearly 70 years. 

For schools in fast-growing areas of Fort Worth, keeping new buildings up to code would have likely been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A spokesperson for the Fort Worth school district told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the new storm shelter requirements increased the cost of a 10 classroom addition in a neighboring city by $400,000.

Spokespeople for surrounding districts within the area told the local paper that while the costs would be significant, no one wanted to gamble with student safety–a sentiment echoed by some councilmembers.

There was no discussion regarding funding to help schools fortify buildings under the new provisions, which also apply to new police, fire and emergency operation center facilities. Espino said prior to the meeting Tuesday evening that discussions with district leaders and city staff suggested the costs would be incorporating in schools’ long term capital planning.

“The costs to harden portions of public buildings to serve as shelters for the occupancy of the building will increase construction costs for all public entities,” Espino said. “The Council does not have a specific plank in its legislative agenda to support funding for additional building code improvements, but has been very clear on the need to improve education in the community.”

Although a handful of cities in Texas have adopted FEMA’s recommendations, the state does not regulate building code. Other states located in Tornado Alley, however, including Illinois and Alabama, require storm shelters in all new public schools statewide.