Sue Ogrocki/AP

A year later, school storm shelters in Oklahoma are ‘a political football’

Deaths of seven children prompted discussion, but the question of who pays has snarled progress

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.

Christopher Legg.
Courtesy Danni Legg

In the Legg household, there is no longer a rambunctious trio of siblings. They are missing their beloved brother. The house has gone quiet.

“We need more noise,” said Danni Legg, Christopher’s mother, nearly a year after the tornado took her son. “You get used to that. You get used to that level of voices. Then it’s not there, and it hurts so bad.”

The month of May, long known in Oklahoma as a harbinger of severe and deadly weather, has come again.

While much has changed since the disaster one year ago, the lack of storm shelters in the majority of Oklahoma schools has remained the same.

The deaths of the children ignited debate about school shelters, but politics surrounding the issue in the deep red state have snarled forward movement. Even as state officials agree shelters are needed, they can’t agree on how to pay for them.

These storms were different.

In 2013, deadly tornadoes and storms May 19, 20 and 31 in Oklahoma killed 50, injured hundreds and left swaths of destruction that were among the worst that locals had ever seen in a state long accustomed to weather-related disasters.

The children who died at Plaza Towers were terrified and separated from their parents when the tornado hit the school. The blunt force of debris that fell on one boy killed him. The autopsy reports of six others listed asphyxia as a cause of death. They suffocated when their small chests couldn’t expand after the wall fell on top of them.

Like many parents, Mikki Davis thought her children would be safest from severe weather at school. In a horrifying handful of minutes on May 20, she and others realized that long-held belief was far from true. Her son, Kyle, 8, a boy who loved playing defense in soccer matches and riding on four-wheelers, also died in the hallway at Plaza Towers.

“My son and his six friends paid the ultimate price that day because there was no shelter in the school and because all of us parents thought they were safer there,” Davis said. “I think it has opened people’s eyes. I think these seven children have changed everybody’s outlook.”

‘A political football’

The deaths at the school pushed the school shelter issue to the forefront of public debate like never before.

Of Oklahoma’s roughly 1,800 public schools, 434 have storm shelters, according to a poll by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Oklahoma officials have estimated the cost of equipping public schools with safe rooms or shelters at $1 billion. Debate over how to pay — and whether it should be left to local taxpayers or the state — has led to frustration, not action.

“It’s mired down in politics,” said state Rep. Mike McBride, a Republican whose district covers most of Moore. “It’s become a political football.”

Two competing school shelter plans have emerged since May 20. Parents of the Plaza Towers victims like Legg spearheaded an initiative called Take Shelter Oklahoma. It calls for a $500 million bond package and is backed by a state Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs. Dorman is looking to unseat Gov. Mary Fallin in the November election.

Fallin’s rival plan would raise money at the local level by increasing the amount school districts can borrow.

After a year of bickering at the Capitol, it’s unknown how many shelters have been constructed at schools. After the devastation of May 20, Moore Public Schools, with help from the federal government and charitable groups, has 10 shelters for more than 30 school buildings, up from two shelters before the storms hit, said Robert Romines, the district’s superintendent.

While Legg has announced plans to run for McBride’s seat, she is equally frustrated by the two parties.

“The Republicans and Democrats up in the state offices have made a huge mess of this,” she said. “And it’s pretty much a no-brainer. We want to protect our children. Not just our children, all children in Oklahoma. I don’t want my kids’ friends to die in a school because of someone arguing over where the money comes from.”

Not waiting around

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.

A mother’s pain

A memorial to Kyle Davis in his family’s backyard.
Courtesy Mikki Davis

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.”

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