published Monday, May 21st, 2012

Tornado shelter relief for Plainview School in Rainsville, Alabama

Plainview School Principal Ronald Bell talks about the construction of a new safe room for the school and community in the wake of tornados that struck Rainsville and the school in April 2011. Each of eight sections of the safe room weigh in at 49 tons.
Plainview School Principal Ronald Bell talks about the construction of a new safe room for the school and community in the wake of tornados that struck Rainsville and the school in April 2011. Each of eight sections of the safe room weigh in at 49 tons.
Photo by Ben Benton.

RAINSVILLE, Ala. -- Students weren't at Plainview School the day tornadoes killed 33 people in DeKalb County, Ala., including a Plainview freshman, her mother and stepfather.

But the school's 38 portable buildings, storm debris still piled throughout Rainsville and a new, life-saving safe room at the heart of the campus are constant reminders of what happened that day in 2011.

And if the winds of April come calling again, Plainview is ready.

Once directional signs are in place, the school -- and when schools aren't in session, the community -- will have an almost 400-ton, concrete space where they can seek shelter, Principal Ronald Bell said.

If school hadn't been called off because of early storm warnings last year, Bell believes people at the 1,050-student, K-12 school almost certainly would have been injured or killed, despite tornado drills and standard emergency planning.

"This area had some debris rammed through the roof, and this other area had some debris from the gym that went through the roof," Bell said, gesturing to points overhead as he walked the hallways of Plainview's now-repaired buildings.

"I'd always felt pretty good about our emergency drills but after seeing what an F4 tornado can do, personally I would rethink putting kids in the hallways," he said.

Schools in the Alabama towns of Hackleburg and Phil Campbell were leveled by similar storms last year, hallways and all, and the two schools hit in Illinois and Indiana a few weeks back were scrubbed from the ground, he said.

"An F4 tornado is something to be concerned about. We now have a safe room to go to," he said, a bit of relief leaking into his voice.

  • photo
    A memorial to DeKalb County, Ala.'s 33 victims of the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak stands at the DeKalb County Schools Coliseum. The memorial was dedicated April 28, 2012.
    Photo by Ben Benton /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Plainview's safe room is a stand-alone building that consists of eight 49-ton prefabricated, concrete and rebar sections welded together with a foundation plunging five feet into the ground. Bell demonstrated the room's battery backup system that will run lights and ventilation for hours if the electricity goes off.

Local fire and police officials, as well as school officials, can open the shelter when needed, Bell said.

RED-TAPE TWIST

Bell said the new safe room led to a small red-tape battle to make it a permanent part of the school and community.

According to The Associated Press, the Federal Emergency Management Agency initially gave states that received a presidential disaster declaration about 75 percent of the cost of installing the rooms. Other than Plainview, Alabama's Alberta Elementary School in Tuscaloosa, Hackleburg Elementary School and High School and Phil Campbell High School were approved for temporary rooms, according to the AP.

FEMA regulations require that safe rooms be installed at tornado-damaged schools that have portable classrooms erected during rebuilding, he said. After the portables are taken down, federal guidelines require the FEMA-built safe rooms be bought by the schools, sold or torn down, he said.

FEMA approved a 600-student safe room for Plainview -- the number of students in portable classrooms -- to be built at a cost of around $500,000. The school has held drills to ensure everyone there can get in the shelter.

But DeKalb officials wanted to keep the safe room and found themselves in a funding snare they couldn't afford, Bell said.

Bell said DeKalb schools Superintendent Charles Warren negotiated with lawmakers and FEMA to revise policies. In the end, the school was allowed to keep the safe room as long as the public can use it after hours and when schools are not in session.

A SAFE PLACE TO GO

Plainview juniors Emily Janzen and Kaci Kirk said they like knowing there is shelter on campus.

"It makes me feel a lot more protected, since we didn't really have anything before in our school," Emily said. "Before, you're like, 'I just want to go home,' [when storms threatened] but now you have a place you can go."

Kaci said she thought debris last year might have killed "most of our students" in the hardest-hit buildings on campus.

With the safe room, school could be "a lot safer than being at your house," Kaci said.

Nearby residents Cora Combs and Janice Galloway said the school and community need the safe room.

Galloway's home on Marshall Road was moderately damaged by storms that obliterated many of her neighbors' homes. She said not everyone was able to install a tornado shelter like her family did.

"I'm glad they've got one," she said.

Combs, whose small, older farm house on County Road 180 was damaged but survived, said the same.

"That will be good for the people," she said.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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