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Governor's Columns: Spring Safety: Getting Ready for Tornado Season


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Spring is here, and we can all be thankful for the opportunity to spend more time outdoors and enjoy the beautiful Oklahoma weather. Unfortunately, the changing weather patterns also mean something else: the beginning of tornado season.

Last year's horrible May storms were an unwelcome reminder that Oklahoma's weather can be deadly. They were also a reminder that, as a state, we need to do more to protect ourselves, especially our children, from the danger of tornadoes.

Oklahoma currently has over 1800 schools, about a third of which have safe rooms or tornado shelters. In a state where tornadoes are a common occurrence, that just isn't enough. We need to do more to give our communities the tools they need to make our schools safer for our students and teachers.

Traditionally, all school construction has been proposed, constructed and funded at the local level. That allows local communities to decide what to prioritize in their schools and to take responsibility for the necessary funding. If a school district wants to build a storm shelter -- or, for that matter, a new gymnasium -- it is done through a bond issue. Each bond issue must be passed locally, with at least 60 percent of the vote, and be funded through property taxes. In most districts, building new storm shelters or safe rooms would cost the average home owner about $2 a month, and in many cases even less.

Unfortunately, some school districts are unable to pursue storm shelters or other safety upgrades because they have reached their legal limit on bonding capacity. They are "maxed out," so to speak. To help those districts, I've asked the Legislature to pass a Constitutional amendment (HJR 1092) that would raise the cap on maximum bonding authority by ten percent for a limited time. Schools that take advantage of this provision would have to use any new bonds for safety upgrades, ensuring the money is going to its intended purpose.

This is a fiscally responsible way to fund safety upgrades in our schools. It doesn't redirect funds for other priorities -- including educational priorities -- to new projects. It's also fair. Communities that have already paid for safety upgrades wouldn't be asked to fund projects in the rest of the state, something they would be forced to do if state dollars were used.

This resolution has already passed in the state House of Representatives. My hope is it will soon pass in the Senate and go to a vote of the people in November.

But regardless of what the state does, every Oklahoman needs to make sure they are prepared for tornadoes and storms right now. That starts with having a plan.

If you live in tornado alley, you should own a battery operated NOAA Weather Radio with a warning alarm feature. Owning one and setting the alarm will ensure you receive automatic weather updates, even if your power goes out.

Next, you need to know where to go if a tornado or storm is coming your way. A reinforced underground storm shelter, storm cellar, enclosed basement or safe room are the safest places to be.

If you do not own or have access to an underground shelter, consider building one. The Oklahoma Office of Emergency Management offers a lottery system for storm shelter rebates of up to $2,000. You can register for the program, called SoonerSafe, at The SoonerSafe program has helped nearly 1,200 homeowners fund safe rooms since 2011. In fact, since 1999, Oklahoma has funded more than 12,000 safe room rebates totaling over $30 million.

If getting underground or into a safe room is not an option, it's important to get inside a strong building and go to an interior room, away from doors and windows, on the lowest floor possible. Cover up -- use whatever you can to protect yourself from flying debris.

Above all else -- do not get caught in a car or a mobile home with a tornado heading your direction. Neither offers any significant protection, and both are likely to get thrown in high winds.

Oklahomans are used to tornadoes. When a tornado hits, we do what we can to stay safe, we recover, and we rebuild. In most cases, familiarity with storms and tornadoes has made us well prepared, resilient, and ready for action. But in some cases, it can make us complacent.

Don't let that happen to you or your family. Be prepared and have a plan. Let's make sure we have the safest spring season yet.

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