Pawnee Public Schools has undertaken a project with the potential to save lives at the school and in the community.
The district is building a monolithic concrete dome that will serve as an indoor playground and safe room large enough to accommodate every student and staff member in the district.
It will double as a community shelter after school hours.
Superintendent Ned Williams said the two biggest reasons the district fast-tracked the project were the lack of a safe room for elementary students and the lack of a community shelter for the town.
The school district became intimately familiar with the destructive power of a tornado after a twister tore through the town in 1998, destroying an auditorium and severely damaging several other education buildings.
Williams said over the years the middle school basement was used as a tornado shelter.
The basement of the Works Progress Administration-era stone building wasn’t an ideal shelter but it was better than nothing.
Unfortunately, it only held a few hundred people, the district has 830 students and the elementary school was located three blocks away.
In August 2012, Pawnee residents approved a $2.95 million bond issue to make capital improvements to school buildings and build a safe room for the elementary school. They hoped to get funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with the safe room.
Then school officials found out they couldn’t receive a FEMA grant even if funding became available unless the city and school had a hazard mitigation plan on file.
The district and city prepared and submitted a joint plan in less than a year only to be told there wasn’t enough money in the hazard mitigation fund to cover their grant and it could take two more years to get the money.
So they looked at the budget and figured out how to pay for it themselves.
“We turned dirt in January 2014,” Williams said. “We didn’t get a dime from FEMA.”
The final design is a monolithic concrete dome that consists of a 60 mil PVC air form reinforced with layers of structural foam insulation, steel and six inches of sprayed concrete.
Without a brick retaining wall, the exterior would look like a big egg, said Stephen Mitchell, vice president of Lambert Construction and project manager for the Pawnee dome.
He said this type of construction is gaining in popularity but is still unusual for this area.
Its $1.3 million cost is comparable to other buildings of the same size and it’s more energy efficient with walls rated at about an R-28 vs. R-21 for standard six-inch walls.
That price tag includes all mechanical systems and finishes, including a rubberized floor.
The building can hold 1,571 people.
Williams said the board of education looked at domes built by schools in Locust Grove and Beggs.
“If you’re building a large structure, a dome is the safest,” he said. “It’s like the difference between blowing a sheet of paper and blowing a ball.”
Mitchell said domes direct wind around and over them like a pebble in a stream.
“There’s nothing for the wind to grab,” he said.
The project was already under development when a tornado struck Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools in Moore last May.
Williams said the project was a tough sell in the current economy but he’s proud that the people of Pawnee understood the importance.
“It made a lot of people look very wise,” he said. “A lot of people can say ‘I wish we could do it’ but Pawnee did it.”