MOORE, Okla. – Administrators believe rebuilding a pair of Oklahoma elementary schools destroyed by a May 20 tornado will help their neighborhoods' long-term recovery, though some parents and children aren't sure it's a good idea to put up new schools on land where seven third-graders perished after being crushed by debris.
"They can rebuild, but not in the same exact spot. People died there," said Antonio Garcia, who rode out the top-of-the-scale EF5 twister inside the Plaza Towers Elementary School on his last day of sixth grade. When school restarts in the fall, he will have moved on to junior high, but he says the site should be made a memorial to his dead schoolmates.
"Don't build it in the same spot. And make it safer for everybody," he said.
Moore School District Superintendent Susan Pierce said this week the district would rebuild the Briarwood and Plaza Towers schools on their same sites after shuffling their 1,150 students into other schools for the 2013-14 school year. The district must also rebuild a gymnasium at East Junior High, which was also destroyed.
"We think it's essential for the kids and the community to come back strong at the same location," Pierce said. "It'll be good for them to see the construction there."
Some parents agree with the decision.
"I agree about getting everything back to normal for the children," said Antonio's mother, Crystal O'Reagan.
Crews began demolishing the Plaza Towers school Thursday. About 500 students attend that school, while Briarwood has about 650 students.
Pierce said she is hopeful the schools will be built with a safe room that can protect pupils from violent weather, and a group of Oklahoma lawmakers on Thursday launched a nonprofit group to help retrofit existing schools.
Officials estimate it will cost about $20 million to replace the schools. Robert Romines, who takes over as superintendent July 1, said administrators are working with insurance companies, architects and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The group Shelter Oklahoma Schools would be funded by private donations. Oklahoma has 1,600 public schools; safe rooms cost between $600,000 and $1 million per school. Houston-based energy company Apache Corp. has already said it will donate $1 million.
Moore Public Schools, the state's fastest-growing district with more than 23,000 students, has experience in rebuilding schools destroyed by tornadoes. A tornado that struck the city on May 3, 1999, destroyed Kelley Elementary School, but classes had already been dismissed for the day and no one was injured. The school was rebuilt on the same foundation and its hallways were made into safe rooms where overhead doors can be shut to enclose the halls as tornados pass overhead.
"We've done this before," Pierce said. "We're working on some kind of similar plan."
Romines, like some parents, said the schools are anchors in their neighborhood and it wouldn't be right to build elsewhere.
"Those buildings are the center of the community. They'll be bigger and better," Romines said.
David Wheeler's son, third-grader Gabriel Wheeler, attended Briarwood Elementary and he wants the school rebuilt in the same place. The family's home is next to the school and was damaged by the tornado.
"That's our community. That's where we live," David Wheeler said. "We're all on board. Most of the children are on board as well."
But Amy Sharp, who pulled her daughter, fourth-grader Jenna Dunn, from Plaza Towers just moments before the twister struck, suggested the school could be moved to an open field adjacent to the former site.
"I don't know if I'm comfortable with my child going to the school on the same site where seven children died. That's kind of morbid," Sharp said.
Gail Stillman, director of student services for Moore Public Schools, said the district will make counselors available for students who have anxieties about future storms or who have difficulty transitioning to a school in a different neighborhood or returning to one of the rebuilt ones.
"There is some concern about that, of course," Stillman said. "There's always a concern that that's going to case an emotional reaction. It's normal that people experience that."
The new schools won't resemble the previous ones, which should lessen the trauma, Stillman said.
Romines, the incoming superintendent, said administrators are also discussing ways to honor the seven third-graders who died at Plaza Towers.
"We have plans to remember," Romines said. "We can't ever forget."