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Tornadoes Raise Concerns About Keeping Students Safe at School

By Nirvi Shah — May 22, 2013 4 min read
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The tornado that turned parts of Oklahoma into places where towns, homes, and schools used to be has prompted fresh questions about how to keep students safe in these events.

Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Okla., where at least seven students were killed, decided to send older students to a nearby church. Younger kids stayed on site.

It’s unclear why.

“There might be a valid reason why they would disperse some students but not others,” Mayer Nudell, an adjunct professor of security management at Webster University in Missouri, told the Huffington Post. “Perhaps they have some reason. But nothing occurs to me.”

New state law in Oklahoma will require tornado drills and intruder drills, along with other already-required drills.

As the twister—rated the most powerful on the scale used to measure tornadoes’ strength—churned through about a 17-mile path, the walls and roof at the nearly 50-year-old school gave way. Students trying to take cover in hallways—away from windows—were showered with dust and debris.

UPDATE 2:27 p.m. Seven students died because of “mechanical asphyxiation” the Oklahoma City medical examiner’s office said at press conference Wednesday. That means their lungs could not expand to take in air. (Initial reports said the children had somehow drowned.) Some of the victims’ names, including those of the 8- and 9-year-old Plaza Towers students, are listed here.

At an earlier press conference Wednesday, Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma’s emergency management director, said the state used $12 million in federal emergency management dollars to provide rebates to Oklahomans who wanted to build safe rooms. He said that translates into at least 6,000 safe rooms. In addition, federal money was used to build at least 100 safe rooms at schools.

None of those rooms were at the schools ravaged by tornado winds Monday.

“It’s not a matter of they were being left out for any reason,” Ashwood said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference, though he said the state will be looking at trying to get more safe rooms across the state.

But even those might have failed in such a violent twister.

“When you talk about any kind of safe room,” Ashwood added, “it’s a mitigating measure. There’s no guarantee that everyone would be safe.”

Stationing students in hallways, covering their heads with their backpacks, were exactly the right move, had the tornado not been so strong.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition on Wednesday that the state will be discussing safe rooms and shelters at schools, noting that many newer schools do have safe rooms—which generally have especially thick walls and steel doors.

“These particular schools were older schools that didn’t have a specific storm shelter room, but they did have a plan of action,” Fallin said.

UPDATED 2:27 p.m. State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said at a Wednesday press conference that the decision to equip schools with safe rooms or other forms of fortified shelter is a local one. She noted tremendous growth in Moore in recent years and said the district is at its bonding capacity—and just trying to keep up with providing adequate classroom space.

“I look forward to working with communities, legislators and the governor on the topic of safe rooms,” Barresi said.

She added that a summer education conference will feature three sessions on safe rooms. And the state will hold a supply drive to help teachers restock classrooms with the things that make the rooms warm and welcoming.

In a statement published online, Moore Superintendent Susan Pierce defended her district’s actions.

“We monitored the weather throughout the day, and when it was time to shelter, we did just that. A tornado’s path is highly unpredictable, but with very little notice, we implemented our tornado shelter procedures at every school site,” she said, adding that her district exceeds state requirements for tornado drills.

Webster University’s Nudell went on to say that deciding how to prepare for a tornado, in particular, is a unique challenge, in part because there is generally little warning. On Monday, Oklahomans had a 16-minute warning. The national average is 14 minutes.

“Even if you got what might be a sufficient amount of warning, you couldn’t be sure that you weren’t sending people in harm’s way because the tornado could take a turn,” Nudell said.

Emergency preparedness is “not an exact science,” but standard practices when tornadoes strike are still the best: Seek shelter in the safest place you can find, and hunker down, Joe Wainscott, the recently retired head of Indiana’s office of homeland security, told USA Today. He oversaw the response and recovery of a tornado last year in Henryville, Ind., that killed 13 people.

In Moore, Superintendent Pierce said that teachers and school employees launched into the correct action Monday and the district does regularly practice tornado drills.

“We are in the process of learning as much as we can about what has happened,” she said in the statement, “and are reviewing our emergency procedures.”

View more photos of the toll the tornadoes took on Oklahoma schools by clicking on the image below.

PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: A child calls to his father after being pulled from the rubble of the Tower Plaza Elementary School following a tornado in Moore, Okla., on Monday.—Sue Ogrocki/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.