Pricy Tornado Shelters Required on Texas School Campuses

Updated building codes in Texas require new school construction to also include tornado shelters but the cost of safety has a hefty price tag for taxpayers. Those storm safe rooms can run up to 30 percent higher in already costly construction.

The Fort Worth City Council plans to revise its building codes on December 6 to guidelines based on the adopted 2015 International Building Code (IBC) as well as a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommendation that says new schools with at least 50 students must have a designated storm shelter that can withstand winds in excess of 250 mph, an EF5 tornado, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area sits in Tornado Alley, a large geographic region that cuts through the Midwest, running from central Texas, up through Oklahoma and as far north as eastern South Dakota. Of the estimated 1,224 tornadoes that touch down each year in the United States, roughly 155 of them happen in Texas during the season, which tends to occur in April through June.

Last year, on December 26, Shields Elementary School in the Red Oak Independent School District located south of Dallas was torn apart by a tornado. Area TV news outlets reported varying wind speeds ranging from EF1 (88-11o mph) to EF3 (165 mph). Luckily, the storm happened over the Christmas holiday break and no one was in the school, but in January, 500 returning students had to complete the year at another campus. When Shields reopened in August 2016, the repairs were estimated at nearly $13 million.

These storm shelters are expensive. FEMA estimates their complex design and building costs run as much as 30 percent higher than the costs of regular construction but the flip side of such expenditures is the potential loss of human life during a tornado. In 2013, an EF4 hit an Oklahoma school, which did not have a shelter, and seven students died, according to the Star-Telegram.

The push to build the safe rooms comes in response to the 2015 IBC update and the current International Code Council (ICC) standards for storm shelters that can hold students and staff inside safely for hours. Fort Worth is among a growing number of Texas cities to adopt the IBC building code policy since 2006. Affiliated municipalities are listed alphabetically on the ICC’s website.

Not every school district is so quick to construct shelters despite these building codes. They point to ballooning construction costs and, according to KTVT, some just wait for their cities to adopt the regulations first. Such was the case in Mesquite, another Dallas suburb.

In September, the Mesquite ISD school board approved an $18 million high school campus expansion and renovation which included a storm shelter. The City of Mesquite already adopted the 2015 IBC and the new construction had to conform at Mesquite High. The Mesquite News reported architects designed the structure to accommodate 1,200, contain six classrooms, two individual restrooms, a fire-riser, mechanical room, stairs, and wide corridors with collaboration space.

The Fort Worth newspaper singled out Northwest ISD as one school district that hopes to get their campuses permitted for storm shelters before April 1, which is the deadline for when these tornado shelter building codes go into effect for Fort Worth area public schools. District spokeswoman Emily Conklin said an elementary schools was approved with 2008 bond money, another, a middle school, was approved in 2012.

Conversely, in 2015, a tornado totaled two schools in Van ISD. Both an elementary and an intermediate school were directly on the path of an EF3. Although they rebuilt their facilities in Van Zandt County, the district did not include a shelter because the city of Van maintains 2009 building codes which do not have shelter requirements.

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