MOORE, Okla. — In quiet moments, the grief hits her hardest.
A rough-and-tumble 9-year-old, Christopher Legg sometimes conspired with his older brother to frighten his little sister. The siblings’ high jinks sent a familiar clamor throughout the family’s home. Christopher loved wrestling with his siblings and dad, and his family did not take moments like these for granted. Christopher’s young life had been shaped by courage he displayed in the face of a formidable diagnosis: skin cancer.
On May 20, 2013, he needed that courage.
As an EF5 twister packing 210 mph winds bore down on Moore, Christopher rose from a spot where he had been huddling with classmates at Plaza Towers Elementary School. He switched seats with another student to sit next to a crying friend in a hallway. Then the unimaginable occurred. The grinding monster ripped into the school. Christopher covered his sobbing friend as the funnel splintered the structure. A wall collapsed on Christopher and others around him. In an instant, the hallway became a tomb. The little girl Christopher had comforted and covered lived, but he died with six other children.
In Oklahoma, funding for building and maintaining public schools comes from local property taxes, not state coffers. Building safe rooms or shelters in a school is an expensive endeavor in a state with many aging school buildings in tiny communities. And there is a cap in the state constitution on how much school districts may hike property taxes. District officials say they can hardly buy books, let alone expensive shelters.
School district officials around the state aren’t waiting for state politicians to act.
“To be perfectly honest with you, we’re continuing on with our goals and not waiting to see what they’re going to do at the Capitol,” Romines said.
As in Moore, a patchwork of ideas and funding sources are slowly getting more storm shelters in Oklahoma schools.
Tulsa Public Schools has 40,000 students and just one building with a formal tornado shelter, said Bob Roberts, emergency management coordinator for the district.
“If we had an unlimited amount of money, we’d have safe rooms in every school,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t. School budgets have been cut for years.”
The district recently broke ground on a new elementary school library that will double as a storm shelter able to house the school’s entire population during severe weather. Upgrading the construction project added about $300,000 to the price tag.
Other schools have had to experience disaster to upgrade facilities.
Tushka is a tiny town whose name is Choctaw for “warrior.” It has a history of battling deadly storms.
Townspeople got together decades ago and built a storm cellar that has become a community landmark near its school. Then in the early 2000s, the school district secured a FEMA grant to build a safe room on school property.
On April 14, 2011, a deadly EF3 tornado destroyed the town’s only school, a brick structure built in 1918. The school has since been rebuilt, using federal dollars to create safe rooms in the new facilities.
“If it weren’t for the tornado — and an insurance policy — we certainly wouldn’t have the facilities we’ve got,” said Superintendent Bill Pingleton.
In Noble, Mikki Davis and her family have built a memorial to Kyle in their backyard. It features a soccer ball and pictures of Kyle, who will always be 8. There are crosses and teddy bears and a poster-size picture of the boy. Davis often spends time there and at her son’s gravesite in southern Oklahoma City, where she talks to him, because it makes her feel better. She has come to accept, though, that the loss will always hurt.
“The pain is always going to be there,” she said. “My heart is going to be broken forever. But I know in my heart, I know where Kyle is. I will see Kyle again.”
The schools that her daughter and two stepsons attend do not have shelters; she takes them home at the slightest hint of severe weather.
“No child, unless they’re in a shelter or safe room,” Davis said, “is safe at school.”