School Climate & Safety

After Okla. Tornado, Safety Debates Emerge for Schools

June 03, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
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.

Corrected: 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.

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 report. 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.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: National Climatic Data Center

While many states require schools to train and drill employees and students in how to act during a natural disaster, including tornadoes, only one—Alabama—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.

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.

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.”

Librarians Kathryn Dorko and Holly Peele contributed to this story.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2013 edition of Education Week as Okla. Tornado Renews Debate on Storm Safety

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School Climate & Safety Sponsor
Putting safety first: COVID-19 testing in schools
Are schools ready to offer a post-pandemic place to learn?
Content provided by BD
School Climate & Safety How Biden's New Actions on Guns Could Affect Students and Schools
President Joe Biden announced steps to prevent gun violence through executive action and a push for state and federal legislation.
5 min read
High school students rally at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 21 in support of those affected at the Parkland High School shooting in Florida.
High school students rally at the U.S. Capitol in February 2018, three days after a former student shot and killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla.<br/>
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says Teens Are Driving COVID-19 Surges. Can Schools Counteract That?
Teenagers and young adults are now driving COVID-19 cases in some states, and experts say schools may be critical in preventing outbreaks.
4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Empowering Teachers and Parents to Speak Up on School Safety
Rick Hess shares practical suggestions from Max Eden on how to ensure school discipline reforms are indeed keeping students and staff safe.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty