In Tornado Alley, storms are even more dangerous for people with disabilities

Jackie Fortiér, StateImpact Oklahoma on

Published in Weather News

NORMAN, Okla. -- John High has diabetes, which led to his leg being amputated below the knee two years ago. He has been using a wheelchair since then and hasn't gotten used to having to work out solutions to everyday problems -- such as getting into and out of the shower in the small rental house he shares with his son in Norman, Okla. And when he hears a tornado siren blaring out its high-pitched warning, he feels a spasm of fear and dread. He knows he's on his own.

"I just pray. That's all I can do," High said. "They expect people to 'shelter in place,' but I don't have anywhere safe to go."

Other Oklahomans have had to adapt too. Few homes have basements, so residents who can afford to do so build or purchase their own shelters. But High can't afford the kind he would need -- one that would allow him to quickly roll his motorized chair inside. And few others see this as a problem.

"One person told me, 'Put on a football helmet and go into your kitchen,'" High recalled with a bitter smile. "I've got a window in every room of this house, so there's really no place for me to go."

He wasn't always in this situation. High chose this rental house in 2008 because of its proximity to a public elementary school that was officially designated as a public shelter. From his driveway, High can see the school down the street. It would take four minutes for him to roll down a ramp, travel along the sidewalk and enter the school gym.

But access to most places that have served as public shelters in the past, including that gym, ended a few years ago after fire officials and others argued that the public shelters weren't up to federal standards. Effectively, that change in policy left Oklahomans like High to fend for themselves.


The protective gold standard for people who live in tornado-prone regions is a storm shelter, also known as a safe room. They can be purchased at big-box hardware stores, or specialty companies can build concrete shelters. The structures range in price from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size and materials. The base model is a concrete room set into the ground, usually in a backyard. To get inside, people must climb down a ladder or steep set of stairs. Above-ground models that are wheelchair-accessible cost more.

High relies on federal disability payments for his income and said he simply can't afford to pay for his own shelter.

"What bill am I going to not pay, to try to save up $3,800? I live day to day. Every month is really rough," he said.

Towns started closing public shelters in Oklahoma a few years ago, to avoid the costs of making them tornado-safe. There was no mandate that municipalities keep them open. High said he thinks the federal or state government needs to step in and help people with disabilities acquire their own storm shelters.


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