Do (Cheap) Mid-Century Schoolhouses Worsen Disasters Like the Moore Tornado?

At least seven children died in Oklahoma this past week when two elementary schools were destroyed. Is shoddy construction to blame?
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At least seven children died in Oklahoma this past week when two elementary schools were destroyed. Is shoddy construction to blame?
The 2013 tornado southwest of Moore, Oklahoma. (PHOTO: KS0STM/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The 2013 tornado southwest of Moore, Oklahoma. (PHOTO: KS0STM/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Over the past 24 hours, focus has turned to everything from Oklahoma's economy to its geology to its plains culture to explain why the devastated suburb of Moore didn't have "safe room" shelters in its buildings, including two destroyed elementary schools where at least seven children died.

But what about the school structures themselves?

"I'm told these schools were built in the 1960s," said Bill Coulbourne, a structural engineer with the American Society of Civil Engineers. Coulbourne oversaw teams assessing damage after Moore's previous tornado disaster in 1999. He was on-scene following the 2011 Joplin, Missouri, tornado, and helped write FEMA's standards for safe rooms. He's heading to Moore next week.

Plaza Towers elementary in Moore was apparently constructed in the late 1950s, of cinder blocks, according to published reports. Briarwood elementary was partially brick. (State education officials didn't know its age, and local officials are impossible to reach from outside the area right now, for obvious reasons.)

At least one of the destroyed schools hails from an architectural era when the "little brick schoolhouse" of American myth gave way to materials that stretched public dollars further—but weren't nearly as sturdy, and are difficult to improve without a costly teardown. "Certainly in the '60s and '70s and even the '80s, engineers were required to get as much as they could out of the budgets," said Coulbourne. "The roofs are steel, but they’re the lightest steel you could find."

The result is that public schools from the second half of the 20th century were often built flimsier than the homes surrounding them. A 2011 survey of educational construction, Modern Schools: A Century of Design for Education, summed up the result:

In practical terms, the modern school as it developed in the United States at this time, was determined to have a number of practical and functional advantages over the traditional two- or three-story brick schoolhouse. To begin with, its lightweight construction, which utilized new building technologies, was less expensive and easier to build, and although its life expectancy was shorter, it was argued that schools needed to be rebuilt periodically anyway.

"The state still has a lot of fiscal responsibility in this," said a FEMA spokesman. "States have rights, and the federal government isn’t going to go in and tell states how to manage their resources." The Department of Housing and Urban Development press office said that "no federal standards" exist requiring American schools to meet a minimum definition of safety against any region's natural disasters.

The building codes applied to schools are all local and engineers trying to save on scant budgets have enormous pressure to keep costs low. "School boards have to fund construction. Most of these buildings are built on bonds, funded by the community," said Coulbourne. Balanced against asking for more bond issues on election day, and competing with the local police, fire, and libraries, most school boards will choose to live with the more or less workable structures they've inherited.

When money does come, retrofitting those '60s buildings isn't easy, Coulbourne said. But it is possible. Using a school's corridors as shelters would be the best option, he said (they would remain uncluttered during normal use as passageways, and would be quick to access in a weather emergency). Shoring up three hundred square feet of passageway to survive a major tornado—a 20-by-80-foot corridor—would cost about $1.5 million, he estimated.

That's not a hopeless amount of money. Oklahoma has in recent years received $57.6 million in assistance to construct "safe room" shelters under the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant program, according to a spokesman at FEMA, which administers it.

The problem is that just the one suburb hit this week, Moore—population 50,000—has 20 elementary schools. Retrofitting all of them would cost nearly as much as the state has received, total, from the FEMA program in its history. Those grants rarely cover all the construction costs, leaving local governments back at square one: balancing their part of the bill against other city services—or the price of textbooks. Yesterday, Oklahoma emergency officials said Moore's city government hadn't applied for one of the grants, despite being hit by large twisters twice before in the past 15 years.

The costs to retrofit old schools get even harder to pay after a disaster, because communities hit by tornadoes can lose massive chunks of their tax base. The 2007 Greensburg, Kansas, tornado disaster was smaller than this week's events. But five years later, the small city still has only about half as many residents and businesses as before. "The local tax rolls take a beating," said Coulbourne.

Relatively, buttressing the schools wouldn't cost a lot of money, however. In 2011, a tornado the size of the one that hit Moore this week destroyed several elementary schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Earlier this month, the Alabama state legislature approved part of the expected $44 million needed to rebuild just two of the schools. If Coulbourne's ballpark numbers are close, creating a tornado shelter in a corridor of the new schools would amount to about five percent of the budget for each new building's construction.