Shelter From The Storm

In Moore, OK, the public school district is building FEMA-grade storm shelters to protect against tornadoes.

By Mary Schmidt
From the April 2018 Issue

On May 20, 2013, an EF5 tornado destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, OK, claiming 24 lives and changing that community forever. The destruction made national headlines, and while families were picking up the pieces of their lives the school district was setting the foundation for a new school. By the next August, a new Plaza Towers Elementary welcomed students, one complete with a storm shelter and lessons learned.

storm sheltersThe tragedy was unexpected for the school leaders because this was the first time a regional school district had lost students due to a tornado touchdown while school was in session. Basements and cellars are not typically found in Oklahoma buildings due to the heavy clay soil, and this school was no exception.

storm shelters
Completed in 2014, the kindergarten classrooms in Plaza Towers
Elementary in Moore, OK double as storm shelters.
(Photos: courtesy of The Boldt Company)

“After losing seven kids in this building we wanted to be extremely cautious,” says Jeff Horn, assistant superintendent of operations for Moore Public Schools. “We never wanted to have something like this happen again.”

The new Plaza Towers Elementary was constructed with the safety of the children as the top priority. Kindergarten classrooms were built as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-grade storm shelters, but building according to FEMA guidelines meant the district needed to meet all federal standards to receive reimbursement.

“There are more complications to building storm shelters than you would imagine,” Horn says.

The district had worked with The Boldt Company’s Oklahoma City office to build other schools, and the firm was hired as construction manager on the project. When the district and families cut the ribbon on the new school in August 2014, it was complete with a memorial dedicated to the seven students who lost their lives in the storm.

Following this project, the district resolved to upgrade storm shelters at all of its sites. The project required an investment from the community by passing a $209 million bond issue in October 2015 to add storm shelters at 23 remaining sites. Boldt has helped to build storm shelters at eight of the district’s schools.

Building For Dual Purpose

Throughout the district, storm shelters were required to be dual purpose: some are classrooms, some are gymnasiums, and some are media rooms. “Few districts have the luxury to build a storm shelter and only use it for that purpose,” Horn says.

At Plaza Towers Elementary, the new school is 61,000 square feet, with 20 classrooms, five specialty classrooms, and room to expand if needed. About 500 students in grades K-6 are enrolled, and 50 teachers and staff work at the school. The storm shelter does double duty as the kindergarten classrooms. There, up to 816 people can occupy a shelter constructed with cast-in-place concrete walls reinforced with steel rebar, reinforced steel doors, and steel plates protecting water and ventilation systems that operate independently from the rest of the building.

A more recent project at the district’s Highland West Junior High was a single-story, 25,700 square foot addition including a gym and a storm shelter. The locker room, restroom, and office areas double as the storm shelter area, and consist of 10″ thick, reinforced, cast-in-place concrete walls. The roof structure is a reinforced concrete slab supported by tightly spaced roof joists; walls and roof structure are tied together to form a storm-resistant unit to withstand tornado-force winds. Special ¼” thick steel plate shrouds surround mechanical or electrical openings into the room to prevent airborne debris. For this project, the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Oklahoma awarded Boldt with the 2017 Build Oklahoma Award for Best of Education.

Navigating FEMA Requirements

Plaza Towers Elementary was the third storm shelter in the district built with FEMA funds, so the district turned to Boldt to manage complicated FEMA requirements. “I’ve been building storm shelters since 2013, and in that time FEMA requirements have been constantly evolving,” says Tyler Bolt, project manager for Boldt Construction.

Bolt and his subcontractors needed to thoroughly understand requirements for construction materials and processes to advise the school district on design and construction changes and how these could affect funding. For example, a FEMA rated door must be identical to the door used in construction and be installed with identical hardware. “If the owner installs heavier hardware than FEMA specs call for, that door system is automatically not FEMA rated and could jeopardize FEMA reimbursement,” Bolt says.

Designs and final construction are scrutinized. Both the architect and engineer of record must submit their plans for peer review, and all parties must undergo inspections by third-party testing agencies. The inspections are assurances that design, materials, and construction processes met FEMA requirements. “When working with FEMA, there are intricacies that you don’t have on a typical construction job, so you have to make sure everyone on the project understands what is designed and what is called for during construction,” Bolt says.

Collaboration Is Key

On the recent Highland West Junior High project, Bolt managed 26 subcontractors and multiple teams of skilled tradespeople. “The sooner we are involved in constructability reviews, budgeting, operational needs, and scheduling, the more effective we can be on behalf of the owner,” Bolt says.

For construction teams and the school district, that required a customized planning process used by The Boldt Company that involves a high degree of collaboration. Jobsite meetings encompassed phase planning meetings, weekly scheduling meetings, and daily huddles. Teams identified milestones and sequencing together, allowing subcontractors, construction managers, and district to develop a trusted, collaborative team.

For the school district, flexibility and communication were key. “Hiring people with the ability to plan and schedule makes it a lot easier,” Horn says. “There has to be forethought, planning, and organization to make projects like this happen.”

In 2016, Boldt started work on four storm shelters in the Moore School District which were completed in August 2017. Several schools were under construction while classes were in session, and Boldt crews worked to limit the impact of construction on the school day. In all cases, the safety of the students and staff were a priority and crews erected temporary walls to limit access to the site, even holding fire drills so all building occupants could identify new routes and exits during construction. “Everything we do affects the daily life of the principal and the people in the school,” Bolt says.

A natural disaster was the catalyst for building storm shelters district-wide, but during the process district leaders learned best practices. “We learned you can build a school in 11 months if you hire the right people and are willing to work hard enough and long enough,” Horn says.

According to Horn, families in the district are excited about the enhanced safety at the schools. In the event another tornado hits, there is peace of mind that students and staff will be safe. “It will be one more tornado season before we have them all built,” he says. “Then it will be a good feeling to know that in the next tornado season every kid will be safe.”

Schmidt is a writer and communications consultant specializing in construction, manufacturing, and business topics. For more information on this project and others, visit

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