Mother of Moore tornado victim questions lack of shelters

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Reported by: Janna Clark
Updated: 7/09/2013 3:46 pm Published: 7/09/2013 3:28 pm

A mom whose daughter died when a tornado hit her Moore elementary schools says she'll keep telling the painful story if it helps make a change and make schools safer.

Kristi Conatzer's 9-year-old daughter, Emily, was one of seven third-graders who died in Plaza Towers Elementary school in the tornado on May 20.

"She and her best friend died together. They were holding hands. They have little scratch marks on their hands from holding onto each other," Conatzer said.

As sad as she is, she's also angry that not only her kids' school but 94 percent of Oklahoma schools don't have shelters.
Tulsa Public Schools only has one safe room at Robertson Elementary School.

FOX23 checked with all the districts in Tulsa County. Two Sand Springs schools have basements. Berryhill's early childhood building has a safe room. Four Bixby schools have them. But Broken Arrow, Union, Jenks, Owasso, and Sapulpa school districts don't have any.

Only about 100 out of 1,700 Oklahoma schools have shelters and most – 73 of them – got theirs in large part from federal money – a FEMA Hazard Mitigation grant that pays 75 percent of the total cost of a school shelter.

The grant's been available to schools for about a decade. Yet many school districts told FOX23 they haven't applied, like Tulsa, Union, Jenks, Broken Arrow, Owasso, Sand Springs and Sapulpa. Some didn't even know about it.

Mark Calavan got grants at two districts, first as superintendent at Porum. A tornado just missed his school in 2000.
"You do a little soul searching, and it's time to go to work," Calavan said.

Now at Checotah schools, Calavan and his district worked to get two grants there. The district is building seven safe rooms at the high school that also serve as training, weight and locker rooms.

And, as part of new construction, the district is building a free-standing safe room that will be also be used as a wrestling facility.

The safe rooms are built to FEMA standards with concrete walls 8-inches thick and steel rebar going through the walls and down into the foundation.

The safe rooms at Checotah's middle and high schools will hold 1,800 people -- big enough for all the students, staff, plus 800 in the community.

"You just sleep better," Calavan said.

Bob Roberts, Tulsa public schools' emergency manager, says he'd like to have shelters.

"I'm a huge believer in them because they're near total protection against a major tornado like we saw in Moore," Roberts said.

Tulsa has never applied for the grant.

No one at TPS could explain why. Roberts says the people who made those decisions are no longer at TPS. But he says now the district's ready to apply for the grant money and even has its own hazard mitigation plan ready to go.
"We'll aggressively go after that (money)," Roberts said.

The grant money offer has expired. But emergency officials expect more money to flood in soon because of the Moore tornado.

Consultant Ron Flanagan helps schools get safe room grant money but says many don't seem eager to go after it.
"It's pulling teeth. It's very difficult," Flanagan said.

He said it shouldn't be that way.

"I think it should be the No. 1 priority in the state of Oklahoma," Flanagan said.

Conatzer thinks so too. She and other parents who lost their children in the Moore tornado don't want to wait on the school districts or the government.

They're helping an organization called Shelter Oklahoma Schools raise private money to put shelters in schools.
"My kids have to be safe. That's non-negotiable," Conatzer said.

John Hunt, an attorney in Oklahoma City chairs the organization.

"Let's start crossing these schools off the list and get them shelters," Hunt said.

He says while most are thrilled by the idea, Hunt is surprised by the reaction of some districts.

"They say, this is not how we do things, we wait for a bond issue or for the state to give us money," Hunt said.
Hunt says this is too important to wait.

"I know how to guarantee results, and if we continue to do nothing, we will have no shelters," he said.
Shelter Oklahoma Schools has raised more than $2 million so far.

Emily Conatzer's school – Plaza Towers Elementary - will get a shelter, and the long-term goal is to start in Moore and branch out until there's a storm shelter in every school in Oklahoma.

It's why her mother keeps telling Emily's story.

"If this helps to do what we need, I'll do it ... I want to make her proud. I want her to look down and say, 'way to go mom,'" Conatzer said.

To donate to Shelter Oklahoma Schools you can go to

To build a shelter in a school, it can cost anywhere from $200,000 to $750,000.

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