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In Oklahoma tornado’s aftermath, talk of ‘safe rooms’

Though many state schools have them, there is no requirement — yet

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As Moore, Okla., begins to dig out of the wreckage wrought by Monday's killer storm, attention is shifting to the steps state officials may take to limit the loss of life the next time a tornado strikes — a question of "when," not "if."

The deaths of seven elementary school students has touched off an intense debate over whether state and local lawmakers erred by not requiring all schools to include storm shelters, or so-called "safe rooms."

More than 100 schools across the state have shelters, but Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven students lost their lives, didn't. State officials said it would cost as much as $1 million per school to retrofit all existing structures.

Furthermore, they pointed out that Monday's twister, an EF-5, the highest level on the Enhanced Fujita scale, is the exception, not the rule.

"The tornado that we're talking about is the 1 [percent] or 2 percent tornado that you get. It's the anomaly," said Albert Ashwood, the state's director of emergency management. "Most tornadoes you get you can protect yourself in your home. This is the anomaly that flattens everything to the ground."

Mr. Ashwood added that, by partnering with federal grant programs, Oklahoma has more schools with tornado shelters than any other state in the nation.

But specialists say that when discussing school shelters and their effectiveness, it's important to put the issue in context. Any broad policies must take into consideration where tornadoes do their most damage and take the most lives, said Kevin Mr. Simmons, an economics professor at Texas' Austin College and a specialist on severe weather and storm preparation.

"You can't just have this blanket policy targeting where the real casualties are occurring would be a much wiser use of funding if you're going to do it at all," he said Wednesday. "The seven fatalities at the elementary school — I feel the tragedy that they're dealing with. But let's take a step back and look at what percentage of casualties happen in schools. It's only about 5 percent, whereas it's about 40 percent in mobile homes," where it's difficult, if not impossible, to construct any type of legitimate storm shelter.

As the debate over safe rooms heats up, it's clear that lives were spared because of the advance warning system employed by the National Weather Service.

The first warnings came 16 minutes before the tornado touched down outside the city. Moore residents had more than a half-hour before the storm arrived.

That amount of time, Mr. Simmons said, is ideal.

"Our research suggests that you get diminishing returns after 17 or 18 minutes," he said. "If you've got an hour, what are you going to do? At that point, it's too late to retrofit your house."

Tornado deaths have become more rare as early warning technology has improved. Of the 25 deadliest single twisters of all time, 24 came before 1960, according to data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The one exception came in Joplin, Mo., in 2011.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday squashed the notion that she would pursue laws requiring all homeowners in the state to build shelters. The idea had been raised by Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis, who says he will push for a city ordinance requiring such safe rooms in all new homes. A handful of state representatives have come out in favor of similar measures.

"We aren't going to require people to do anything," Mrs. Fallin, a Republican, said in response during an afternoon news conference.

She was joined by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet A. Napolitano, who arrived in the city of about 56,000 to survey the damage and supervise federal disaster relief workers already on the ground.

President Obama will visit Moore over the weekend.

The tornado, described by one official as "the storm of storms," claimed 24 lives and injured more than 230 others. Property damage is estimated to be between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

Residents were allowed to return to their homes for the first time Wednesday, with local officials confident there are no more victims buried beneath rubble.

Clean-up efforts will continue throughout the weekend, just as the first victims' funerals begin.

Those funerals will include services for several of the seven children killed when Monday's tornado tore through their school.

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