Published Online: June 3, 2013
Published in Print: June 5, 2013, as Okla. Tornado Renews Debate on Storm Safety
Includes correction(s): June 6, 2013

After Okla. Tornado, Safety Debates Emerge for Schools

A man walks in the rubble of the tornado-wracked Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the Sooner State has more safe rooms in buildings and homes constructed with FEMA money than any other state, although Plaza Towers did not have one.
—Sue Ogrocki/AP

Schools' practices vary

As soon as the winds that left seven students in Moore, Okla., dead last month had calmed, and more storms blew through the same area less than two weeks later, questions about the safety of schools in a region labeled Tornado Alley rose amid the rubble.

While better design of new schools and thorough emergency training and practice may be in order, more shelters aren't necessarily the answer, experts and educators say. Oklahoma's 11,768 safe rooms statewide built with some federal aid eclipse those subsidized in all other states, a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman said.

Schools and communities across the country prepare for tornadoes in different ways. Some design a common room at a school to serve as a shelter, while others create underground safe rooms or fortify buildings to withstand relatively weak storms.

Some districts, especially those with a lot of old school buildings, rely on ushering children into glass less hallways and under desks, as the leaders at the leveled Oklahoma schools did based on multiple practice sessions.

No count appears to be available of how many schools have installed wind-resistant rooms for students in Oklahoma or nationwide, much less whether they would protect them from the strongest of storms.

But state emergency managers in Oklahoma are trying to gather an exact count and location of all the schools in the state with safe rooms: The lack of a list was a concern raised in a 2011 reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader. Schools are not required to tell any state agency if they have one.

Meanwhile, school safety experts and officials of the 23,000-student Moore school district say teachers and school leaders did exactly what they should have May 20, especially in the face of a storm with winds that rated unusually high on the scale for measuring tornadoes.

"With certain kinds of hazards, ... you're going to lose lives," said Victoria Calder, the director of the Texas School Safety Center, in San Marcos.

Storm-Prone States

Some parts of the United States see more tornadoes than others. The central region that scientists have labeled Tornado Alley spans from Texas to South Dakota and includes parts of Colorado. The Dixie Alley tornado region (not shown) cuts across several Southeastern states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

While many states require schools to train and drill employees and students in how to act during a natural disaster, including tornadoes, only one—AlabamaRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader—mandates that districts take on the costs of building schools with safety features that could withstand especially powerful twisters, according to the National Storm Shelter Association, based in Lubbock, Texas.

Alabama offers no special state funds for that purpose, said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, an education department spokeswoman. Districts can, however, apply for federal emergency-management grants to subsidize a safe room's costs, she said. The safety-feature requirement has been in place for schools since the 2010 passage of a law that was prompted by the deaths of eight students at a southeastern Alabama high school that was in the path of a 2007 tornado.

Funding Safer Buildings

Any proposal to require shelters at schools in Oklahoma may be a tough sell in a state with a history of tornadoes, but also of local control. Soon after twisters raked across the state last month, though, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, said she would have a conversation about the idea with her cabinet.

Already, several state lawmakers have assembled a nonprofit organization to collect money for schools to build facilities that could withstand tornadoes. It has netted $500,000 from a Texas-based energy company that is earmarked for Moore. The organizers hope their effort will pre-empt the need for a state mandate.

Questions about the destruction this year are especially pointed because the district had firsthand experience with what such a storm could do to its buildings.

The Moore district was struck with a similarly powerful tornado in 1999. The evening storm obliterated Kelley Elementary School, just as last month's twister spun apart Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools. At the time, students and teachers also would have gathered in the hallways to remain safe, FEMA documents show.

FEMA lists the rebuilt Kelley Elementary as a case study in a guide about tornado protection. The newer school has stronger load-bearing walls, roof-to-wall and wall-to-foundation connections, and walls built with closely spaced, reinforced metal bars.

However, other recent Moore construction projects have been undertaken simply to keep up with enrollment growth, including the addition of classrooms and a computer lab about six years ago at Plaza Towers Elementary.

In the Bull's-Eye

Oklahoma is in a stretch of the central part of the country that the National Climatic Data Center labels Tornado Alley. The region spans from Texas to South Dakota and includes parts of Colorado.

A school crossing sign lies amid the rubble of a Moore, Okla., elementary school that was leveled by a tornado last month. The disaster has raised questions across the country about how to protect schoolchildren from powerful storms.
—Sue Ogrocki/AP

Other tornado-prone parts of the United States include states along the Gulf Coast—Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, with all but Florida forming the so-called Dixie Alley tornado region.

Missouri isn't in either of those clusters, but tornadoes are a familiar sight. In the 7,400-student Joplin district, school surveillance cameras captured what happened in the hallways when tornadoes shredded the city in 2011, two years and two days before the twister that hit Moore.

"The areas that we would have taken the kids to for shelter did not fare well," Mike Johnson, the district's director of construction, said.

The twister hit on a Sunday, when buildings were empty. While some remained upright, projectiles zipped through the open spaces and would have killed or severely injured anyone in the way. The district estimates a death toll of at least 1,000 had school been open.

At schools that the Joplin district is building from scratch, safe rooms have been incorporated into the design. At several other district schools, rooms that will serve as gymnasiums and auditoriums—and shelters in the event of a storm—are being added strategically, so as not to blot out playground and parking space.

FEMA money covers about 60 percent of the cost, Mr. Johnson said, though the split works out to 50-50 by the time aesthetics and accessories, such as basketball hoops and scoreboards, are tacked on.

"We would have never been able to afford doing them without these FEMA dollars," he said.

The district issued bonds to cover construction costs, but Missouri laws, similar to those elsewhere, capped what Joplin could raise.

"We raised our maximum amount: $62 million," Mr. Johnson said. The district's total rebuilding costs: $220 million.

Related Blog

Several Joplin school officials went to Moore after the tornado to help the Oklahoma district cope.

In addition to obliterating Plaza Towers and Briarwood schools, the tornado stripped a district junior high school of portable classrooms, a gym, some windows, football and basketball equipment and uniforms, and part of its roof. A district technology building was destroyed, administrative headquarters were so damaged that offices have been moved into a high school, and 12 district vehicles were lost.

"It sounds really easy to say every school should have a safe room. It's much more complicated," said Joplin Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer. "There is not a one-size-fits-all" solution, she said.

Moore spokeswoman Kelly Arnold said the district will consider rebuilding Plaza Towers and Briarwood with safe rooms, but nothing has been decided.

"We prepared for what we understood would happen," Moore Superintendent Susan Pierce said. "Now we must plan for a different reality. We must do whatever we can to keep our children safe."

Devastation in Moore

At the elementary schools destroyed in Moore, principals said they heeded district warnings about an impending tornado. Students and teachers were stationed where they had practiced to go.

But they had no control over the buildings' ability to withstand such winds. Some children in hallways and under desks were trapped alive by collapsed walls and roofs.

Seven 2nd and 3rd graders at Plaza Towers Elementary died when debris impeded their breathing, the Oklahoma City medical examiner said.

Parts of Plaza Tower Elementary were 47 years old, and Briarwood was 28 years old. In districts nationwide, many school buildings date to the turn of the 20th century. Bulldozing and rebuilding them all is a financial impossibility, said Ms. Calder of the Texas School Safety Center.

See Also
To donate or support the schools destroyed by the Moore, Okla., tornado, visit the Moore Public Schools Tornado Relief Fund.

But safety isn't always at the forefront of architects' minds even when new buildings are designed.

"Even some of the newest buildings in Tornado Alley are built for aesthetics—not for safety," Ms. Calder said. The flat roofs typically found at many schools are easy targets for tornadoes: Without the right reinforcement, they can fly off.

But guiding principles for school design, which consider safety, are just that, Ms. Calder said: a guide.

In addition, she said, Texas teachers have called her to say there is nowhere to go if a tornado strikes.

"Sometimes, the only room that's somewhat safe, with no glass, is the auditorium," Ms. Calder said, pointing out that some Texas high schools have more than 3,000 students. "That won't fit the entire student body at the same time."

Vol. 32, Issue 33, Pages 1,24

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Correction: 
A photo caption in an earlier version of this story contained an incorrect statement about the number of federally subsidized safe rooms in Oklahoma K-12 schools. State education officials are only aware of 85 such shelters constructed with Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, but are working to compile a more complete list.

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