John High has diabetes, which led to his leg being amputated below the knee two years ago. He’s been using a wheelchair since then, and hasn’t gotten used to having to work out solutions to everyday problems — such as getting in and out of the shower in the small rental house he shares with his son in Norman, Oklahoma . But when he hears a tornado siren blaring out its high-pitched warning he feels a spasm of fear and dread. In this situation, he’s on his own, NPR reports.
Other Oklahomans have had to adapt too. Few homes have basements, so those who can afford 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 motorised chair right inside. And no one but him seems to see this as a problem. He wasn’t always in this situation. High chose this rental house in 2008 because of its proximity to a public school that was an officially-designated public shelter. From his driveway, High can see the elementary school just down the street. It would take just four minutes for him to roll down a ramp, travel along the sidewalk, and get inside 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. You can buy them at big box hardware stores, or have concrete shelters built by specialty companies, but they range in price from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size and materials. The base model is just a concrete room set into the ground, usually in a backyard. But to get inside, people must climb down a ladder or steep set of stairs. There are above-ground models that are wheelchair accessible, but those cost more.