Education

In Tornado’s Aftermath, Experts Call for Emergency Planning

March 08, 2007 6 min read
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The tornado that tore through Enterprise, Ala., this month, smashing a high school and leaving eight students dead, was yet another reminder of the critical need for all schools to adequately plan and prepare for emergencies, whether natural disasters, terrorist acts, or other dire situations, experts say.

The death toll at the school, which President Bush visited March 3, appears to have been the largest for a school struck by a tornado in many years.

State and local officials say they’re confident the school did all it could to protect students from the fierce March 1 windstorm, and backed the decision to keep them in school as the storm approached.

“My guess is that some people second-guess the beginning of time,” Joseph B. Morton, Alabama’s state superintendent of education, said in an interview. “But in my estimation, the school officials did everything they could do to protect human life. And I have no questions about their actions whatsoever.”

Experts suggest that schools are far more prepared than in the past for emergencies, especially following the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Still, one recent report found that many U.S. school districts have a long way to go in preparing for events that may cause mass casualties.

In Enterprise, the school board met March 7 to discuss plans to get students back in school. All schools in the 5,000-student system shut after the storm and were slated to reopen March 14.

High schoolers will attend classes at a nearby community college. An elementary school also incurred severe damage, but no fatalities, and is not expected to reopen this school year. Its students will attend another elementary school in the district.

‘Heart of a Community’

Funeral services for all eight students took place this week in and around Enterprise, a city of some 23,000 next to the Army Aviation Center in Fort Rucker, and just above the Florida panhandle.

Authorities told reporters that concrete from a collapsed interior wall fell on the students as they huddled together in a hallway. The storm hit the school early in the afternoon.

Where Tornadoes Took Lives in U.S. Schools

Although it is rare for tornadoes to cause the deaths of students and educators at school, the violent windstorms have caused multiple in-school fatalities over the years. The Tornado Project has compiled a top-10 list of tornado-related deaths in U.S. schools. The list does not include the March 1 incident in Enterprise, Ala., in which eight students were killed.

*Click image to see the full chart.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Note: Excludes a 1989 incident in Newburgh, N.Y., because experts are divided over whether it involved a true tornado.

SOURCE: The Tornado Project

Tornadoes have hit schools on occasion in the past, but the death toll at the 1,200-student Enterprise High School is higher than in most similar incidents in recent decades.

The worst-ever on record was a 1925 tornado in Desoto, Ill., that killed 33 in a school, according to the Tornado Project, based in St. Johnsbury, Vt. The same day, a school in Murphysboro, Ill., had 25 fatalities.

In 1989, a wind gust that has been officially listed as a tornado, but which some experts said was not one, hit an elementary school in Newburgh, N.Y., and killed nine students, according to the Tornado Project.

“The heart of a community like Enterprise, Alabama, is the school,” President Bush said during his visit to the school site, the same day he declared the area a major disaster, making the community eligible for substantial federal aid. “And today I have walked through devastation that is hard to describe.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has established three disaster-recovery centers around the city. Donations of food and other supplies have poured in, as well as hundreds of volunteers.

Policy Followed

Russell Quattlebaum, a member of the Enterprise school board, said school officials had “followed the storm policy, and [students] were in the hallways where they were assigned to be, sitting with their heads down. It was followed by the book.”

Mr. Morton, the state superintendent, noted that all public schools in Alabama are required to conduct a fire and tornado drill once a month. He also said school buildings must meet certain design expectations set by the state school architect before they open. In addition, they must have emergency plans in place.

William Modzeleski, who heads the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools, said he has been in touch with state and local officials to let them know about some of the federal assistance available. In addition to FEMA aid, they are eligible for other help, including through Project SERV, or School Emergency Response to Violence, which he said is primarily focused on mental-health assistance to schools.

Also, the federal government recently has begun providing public schools, at no charge, special radios with access to information about terrorist threats, emergencies, and weather conditions in their immediate areas.

The Enterprise disaster is another reminder of the pressing need for school districts to prepare for emergencies, said Mr. Modzeleski. To help promote such readiness, the Education Department operates a $27 million competitive-grant program that has provided money to more than 350 districts since 2003.

“We really stress to schools that you need to have a plan,” Mr. Modzeleski said. “You have to plan for it and drill for it.”

Mr. Modzeleski said he believes virtually all schools have some sort of plans for emergencies, but the quality varies widely.

“There is a continuum,” he said. “[T]he quality goes from excellent … to a plan which is pulled off a Web site.”

‘A Safe Haven’

Dr. James Graham, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, in Little Rock, said he found important deficiencies in school districts’ planning and preparation for emergencies and disasters in a national study that he co-authored.

Drawing from surveys of more than 2,000 school systems, the results were published in the January 2006 edition of the journal Pediatrics.

For example, he said, about one-third of districts had never conducted drills for their emergency plans for potential mass-casualty events. One-quarter had no plans to help children with special needs. And about half the districts said they had never met with local emergency officials, such as health officials and providers of ambulance services, Dr. Graham said.

“Good coordination between the various agencies is really key to providing an effective response,” he said. “They ought to sit down with the schools in their area once a quarter or twice a year. … It does need to be more than just a single meeting, because things change.”

Gregory A. Thomas, the deputy director of planning and response at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, based at Columbia University, said a school is often the safest place for students to be in an emergency.

He noted that homes are rarely better constructed than schools to withstand severe weather.

“Schools have multiple telephones, a lot of adults in the building, a nurse in the building, food and other sustenance that can keep a child safe and out of harm’s way,” said Mr. Thomas, who was the director of school security for the New York City schools during the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. “I know personally, a school is a safe haven.”

Some school officials in tornado-prone areas are taking extra steps. For instance, the 50,000-student school district in Wichita, Kan., now has “safe rooms” in about a third of its school buildings that are designed to withstand an F5 tornado, the most severe category.

“We have constructed 36 FEMA safe-room tornado shelters throughout our district,” said Julie A. Hedrick, the director of design and construction for the Wichita schools, at a cost of about $6 million. “They are shelters for high-wind events, and they actually meet a federal guideline that was prepared with a direct hit from an F5 tornado in mind.”


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