DES MOINES (AP) — Only a few dozen of Iowa’s 1,400 public school buildings have safe rooms designed to withstand severe tornadoes, and local leaders are unsure whether legislation can change that.
Only 37 public school in Iowa have safe rooms, and most were built in the past five years. That number does not include older schools that have storm shelters that are not approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Industry experts say those facilities still provide a high degree of protection.
The May 20 tornado in Moore, Okla., that destroyed two elementary schools and killed seven students has stirred conversation among Iowa leaders and parents about legislation to build more safe rooms. Alabama is the only state in the country that requires safe rooms in new schools.
Parents in Mitchellville, Iowa, recently lobbied their school district to build a safe room in an elementary school that is scheduled to open in 2014. The district did not approve their request, citing the cost.
“As a parent, you want to make sure that when you send your kid off to school that they are going to be as safe as they possibly can be,” said Lindsey Powers, a Mitchellville mother of three. “The chances of a tornado striking anywhere are slim, but with kids, you don’t want to take a chance. You want that safe room.”
Safe rooms are structures deemed by FEMA as providing “near-absolute protection” in a tornado. They can withstand wind gusts of up to 250 mph and can resist the impact of a 15-pound 2-by-4 board traveling horizontally at 100 miles per hour.
Some argue that safe rooms are too costly for cash-strapped schools in Iowa. Iowa Homeland Security data show that the average cost of a safe room per occupant is $1,420. Most of the safe rooms in the state have been built through a FEMA grant program.
Others wonder whether it makes sense to equip every school for a tornado that may never come. Iowa averaged 51 tornadoes a year between 1991 and 2010.
“It’s really easy to ask the question, but a lot harder to answer it,” said Mike Gumm, a Cedar Rapids architect. “It’s a localized question, and each local answer is going to be different.”
A tornado in 2008 hit the northeast Iowa towns of Parkersburg, New Hartford and Dunkerton. Nine people were killed.
“For a state like Iowa, it makes sense to invest in safe rooms,” said Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association at Texas Tech University. “This is a situation where communities simply need to step forward and provide a higher level of safety, particularly in schools.”