Report: Oklahoma schools destroyed by tornado were poorly constructed

March 20, 2014
Seven students were killed and dozens were injured when school walls collapsed last year.

An analysis of two Oklahoma schools that were leveled by an EF5 tornado last spring has revealed significant construction errors and code violations.

The American Society of Civil Engineers and the Structural Engineering Institute studied the debris of the buildings and will publish their findings in a report this spring.

That analysis found numerous structural deficiencies in the construction of Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools in Moore, Okla., the Journal Record has reported. Those flaws include steel roof beams that were not attached to the walls, cinderblock walls that were not properly reinforced with steel rebar and walls that were not backfilled with concrete.

Both schools were destroyed in the tornado, which killed seven students at Plaza Towers when the walls of the third-grade center collapsed. The walls also gave way at Briarwood, injuring 24 students and teachers.

“Odds are, if the schools had been built right, the walls would not have fallen,” Chris Ramseyer, a civil engineer involved in the report, told the Journal Record.

Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis told the newspaper that the schools were not built stronger due to the expense. The report emphasizes the need for better building inspections and more storm shelters, Lewis told the newspaper.

Although it is difficult for any building to withstand a direct hit from an EF5, Ramseyer said buildings should be designed and built to better absorb the energy from the storm. This can be done economically, he added.

“It’s OK for the structure to have severe damage as long as humans can leave the building alive at the end of the events,” Ramseyer said in the story. “If that’s the case, then the engineer did their job. Our job isn’t to protect the building. Our job is to protect humanity.”

The Journal Record also reported that the founders of the firm that designed Briarwood in 1984 were disciplined for errors found in other projects. Oklahoma City-based RGDC, which is no longer in existence, also designed several other public buildings in Oklahoma.

Plaza Towers was built in 1965. The separate third-grade center was built in 2005. The debris was removed before ASCE could examine it, but photos of the debris revealed structural problems that were similar to those found at Briarwood, the Journal Record reported.

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