Should your next school project include a safe room?

Many school districts continue to resist mandating the inclusion of safe rooms or storm shelters in new and existing buildings. But that may be changing.

February 26, 2015 |
Should your next school project include a safe room?

Wrestling room doubles as safe room at a Wichita, Kan., school. Photo: FEMA

When it comes to protecting K-12 schools and students from earthquakes, tornados, or flooding, many school districts continue to resist mandating the inclusion of safe rooms or storm shelters in new and existing buildings. But that may be changing.

An Illinois law that took effect January 1 requires all new schools to have storm shelters. Illinois joined Alabama as the only states that mandate storm shelters or safe houses in new schools.

Oklahoma, ground zero for deadly tornados, has rejected such mandates for budgetary and political reasons. Governor Mary Fallin has backed a proposal to allow local governments to raise their debt limits if they want to use bonds to fund shelters. (Oklahoma City already requires shelters.) An advocacy group called Take Shelter has been trying to get a petition on the statewide ballot to raise $500 million through franchise taxes to put safe rooms in every school in the state.

Money is main reason why safe houses and storm shelters at schools aren’t more widely accepted. A 2013 article published in the Wall Street Journal estimated that it would cost $1 billion to install safe rooms in the 1,100 Oklahoma public schools that didn’t have them at the time.

Protecting buildings from catastrophic events can quickly erode a district’s general revenue funds. Krisztina Tokes and Mark Hovatter of the Los Angeles United School District have estimated that 21% of the $4.3 billion they said was needed annually for school construction would be allocated for earthquake upgrades.

Most AEC professionals would agree that preventive expenditures are a lot cheaper than rebuilding after a natural disaster hits: just ask anyone in the New York metropolitan area who suffered through Hurricane Sandy, which caused an estimated $50 billion in property damage in late 2012. With so much talk about the possible relationship between climate change and more catastrophic weather events, some ISDs are reconsidering the wisdom of waiting and seeing.

 

Construction of a safe room at a Wichita, Kan., school. Photo: FEMA

 

Last November, voters in Carl Junction, Mo., approved a $16.5 million bond issue that will help pay for three storm shelters in the school district.

By the end of its current construction bond financing in 2016, Wichita Public Schools will have safe rooms that can withstand an EF-5 tornado in every attendance center it operates, even though safe rooms aren’t mandatory in Kansas. Julie Hedrick, the district’s Facilities Division Director, says that a safe room can add up to $50/sf to the cost of new construction.

As for existing schools, Hedrick says it’s usually not cost effective to add a safe room as part of a renovation. But she says that, high school wrestling rooms—which usually don’t have windows and pad their walls and floors—have been upgraded to safe rooms relatively inexpensively.

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