Oklahoma twister turns eyes to school safety

Oklahoma twister turns eyes to school safety

May 26th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Plainview School Principal Ronald Bell talks in this 2012 photo about the construction of a safe room for the school and community in the wake of tornadeos that struck Rainsville, Ala., and the school last April. Each of eight sections of the safe room weighs in at 49 tons.

Photo by Ben Benton /Times Free Press.

POLL: Is it worth the money to put safe rooms" in schools?"

The mile-wide tornado that left 24 dead in the Oklahoma City suburbs shredded whole subdivisions, tossed cars around like toys and captivated America for days.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the heartland was at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died in the twister's assault.

The devastation led to calls for mandatory tornado shelters in schools and raised questions why kids were there when the threat of severe weather was apparent.

That's why the Plaza Towers story is different. It's not just the overwhelming physical devastation, but the thought of children taking their last breaths at school -- the very place they are said to be safest.

Tornadoes have hit schools before. But often, no children have been in the buildings when the worst destruction reigned.

The empty high school campus in Joplin, Mo., was destroyed during that town's deadly tornado on a Sunday evening in 2011. Closer to home, on April 27, 2011, an after-hours tornado ripped off the roof and tore windows and doors off their hinges at Ringgold High School and flattened a whole wing of the middle school. Students had been sent home earlier in the day.

Despite tornado damage becoming all too familiar in the Tennessee Valley, most schools in the area, including three under construction or design in Hamilton County, have no designated storm shelters or safe rooms.

School officials say this part of the country rarely sees the kinds of storms that struck Moore and Joplin.

But there is a sense that the weather is changing and that maybe schools should be changing, too.

"Historically, this has not been a high-probability area for tornadoes," said Gary Waters, who oversees Hamilton County Schools' facilities. "Certainly in the last couple years that seems to be changing."

None of the county's 78 schools has a designated storm shelter. Waters said the district has explored the possibility before and may again.

"I think it's something that, given what may be a changing weather pattern, we may need to be looking at," Waters said.

But when even schools in the heart of tornado alley don't all have storm shelters, it can seem like a low priority for schools in the Southeast. After all, this was Moore's second brutal hit from a tornado. And even after hundreds of homeowners there purchased underground shelters following the 1999 twister that boasted the highest winds on record, some of their schools went without.

"You will find that most schools do not have shelters or places that were hardened to provide life-saving protection from high winds and tornadoes," said Scott Tezak, a structural engineer with Boston-area TRC Cos.

Tezak has worked as a consultant with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on construction specifications for storm shelters.

He says all schools should have some sort of shelter or protected area and that those shelters should be built based on a specific area's risk. So Boston-area schools may not need as much protection as Tennessee's schools, which probably don't need the same level of protection as those in Oklahoma.

FEMA offers certain grant programs that allow schools to build below- or above-ground shelters at a fraction of the actual cost. And in many cases they can serve a double purpose, as gyms, music rooms or multipurpose space, Tezak said.

While some schools in the thick of Tornado Alley have invested heavily in these spaces -- the Wichita, Kan., school system dedicated $45 million to build safe rooms in 69 buildings in 2008 -- it's still a rarity here.

"The truth of the matter is we don't typically get very strong tornadoes here," said Mike Rowland, director of facilities services at the Georgia Department of Education.

Rowland, a former high school principal, said he believes the geography of the area just hasn't made additional shelters or safe rooms in schools a priority. And he believes students and staff are safer on campus following a school's evacuation plan than they would be on a bus or even at home.

"The design features are important. And the building codes may evolve because of these kinds of things," he said. "But my intuition is that a great deal of the safety of kids in those situations has to do with the planning of the school officials."

Even Ringgold schools didn't add storm shelters after the middle and high schools sustained considerable damage. Much of the roof collapsed at the middle school, and giant air-conditioning units fell into the building.

The school system did add inch-thick metal interior doors that roll down from the ceiling to cordon off interior hallways and protect students and staff from flying glass and debris.

Catoosa County Superintendent Denia Reese said school officials reviewed the interior hallways of the damaged schools after the storm, and believe they are safe in the event of another tornado.

"The walls in these hallways were still standing after the EF4 tornado hit the schools," Reese said in a prepared statement.

But the threat of tornadoes shook Alabama officials enough to mandate that all schools built after July 2010 include an approved safe space or hallway.

"Now I wonder how we did without one," said Rita Barksdale, principal at Plainview School in Rainsville, Ala. "I'm telling you our whole attitude out here is totally different."

Plainview added a stand-alone safe room after the April 2011 tornadoes wreaked destruction on the school. The room is made of eight 49-ton prefabricated, concrete-and-rebar sections welded together with a foundation dug five feet into the ground.

Staff and nearby community members fled to the above-ground structure this spring as unexpected storms dropped down on the DeKalb County school.

And after seeing the destruction and the death toll in Oklahoma, Barksdale said she's grateful to have a reinforced structure in case the worst ever happens here.

"When one like that comes through, a hallway is not going to do you any good," she said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.