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, Oklahoma. 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.