Recent Tornadoes in Oklahoma Highlight Need for Modern School Storm Protection

Recent Tornados in Oklahoma Highlight Need for Modern School Storm Protection

Recent Tornadoes in Oklahoma Highlight Need for Modern School Storm Protection

The deadly tornado that struck the town of Moore, Oklahoma on May 20th (and then again a week later the series of tornadoes that whipped across the state as well as in Missouri) was a further eye-opener to many in the hard-hit community and around the country. Particularly alarming was the complete leveling that occurred at Plaza Towers Elementary where seven children lost their lives.

Parallels to the May 20th Oklahoma tornado were made to the massive tornado in 2011 that decimated six schools and badly damaged four others in Joplin, Missouri, although at that time none of buildings was occupied because it was a Sunday. As a result of the Joplin 2011 tornado, officials decided to put tornado shelters in all 13 of their schools, including those that were not destroyed. All of the shelters will double as gymnasiums. A 14th storm shelter being built at the football stadium will serve as a locker room. All are meant to protect students, staff and the public remaining open 24 hours a day with space to house up to 15,000 people.

But at Plaza Towers, unlike several other schools in the Oklahoma City area, no such shelter existed as it was constructed a couple of generations ago. Now in the light of day, the powerful tornado that brought the building to the ground revealed its lack of modern safety standards and spurred a discussion as to how to move forward to address school safety.

It’s, of course, a matter of dollars. Federal Emergency Management Agency grants distributed by states can cover 75% of the cost of safe rooms, which can run up to $1 million for a single storm shelter that might never be needed.  The local schools still must come up with the rest. Some school districts have issued bonds, backed by tax revenues, to ease the burden. But even that has limits. As a result, you have a patchwork of protection in tornado-prone areas that sometimes ends with tragic results.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin on the heels of the devastating tornado announced the creation of a state fund to accept donations for the construction of safe rooms, which are fortified by deep foundations, thick concrete walls and steel doors designed to withstand winds of 250 mph. What’s more, on a separate front, a member of the state House of Representatives proposed creating a $500 million bond issue to pay for storm shelters at public schools and in private homes across the state.

In Joplin, Superintendent C.J. Huff said the aboveground shelters will be built with reinforced steel and specially treated concrete designed to withstand an EF5 tornado like the twisters that hit their city and Moore. Groundbreaking is set for this summer. Until the shelters are complete, students will be sent to interior rooms such as restrooms, windowless classrooms and closets but not hallways, which Huff said can become “wind tunnels” for flying projectiles. The Joplin storm shelters are among 148 that Missouri has helped finance with $155 million of federal money since 2004, according to figures provided by the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

Disaster Planning: Tornado Safety Plan

Schools in Oklahoma and other states in tornado-prone areas all have safety plans in place. Here are several important issues school administrators need to consider when evaluating and reviewing their tornado safety plan:

1. Every Second Counts: If it takes more than two or three minutes to move people from upstairs to downstairs, then it could be risky and dangerous. Although most tornado warnings are issued with ample lead-time, sometimes tornadoes are unpredictable and come with little or no warning. Plan for a reasonable worst-case scenario.

2. Flying Debris is the biggest tornado hazard. For protection, you need as many walls between yourself and a tornado. In your building, are there interior hallways, rooms or corridors on the second floor that are exposed to the outside through windows, doors or glass walls? If so, flying broken glass and debris become projectiles and can cause severe cuts, injuries and even death. If there are enough enclosed places on the second floor with no direct exposure to the exterior, you may be able to save the time needed to move people down to the lowest level.

3. Building Strength: Is the construction of the main building architecturally sound? What interior parts could stay intact during total structural loads created by 150-200 mph winds? Is there any place on the upper floor safe enough in such structural stresses? If your building is relatively new, you should be able to consult the school’s builders. A county engineer or structural engineer could also be consulted.

4. Tornado Safe Rooms: Safe rooms are reinforced small rooms built in the interior of a home or

building fortified by concrete and/or steel to offer extra protection against tornadoes, hurricanes and other severe windstorms. They can be built in a basement, or if no basement is available, on the ground floor. In existing buildings, interior bathrooms or closets can be fortified into safe rooms, as well.

5. Portable Classrooms: Most often constructed like mobile or modular homes, these are considered unsafe during tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. A school’s tornado safety plan must include getting students out of portable classrooms and into a safe area in the main building as quickly as possible, to minimize the time spent outside and exposed to the elements.

6. Gymnasiums and Auditoriums: Large, open-span areas such as gymnasiums, auditoriums and most lunchrooms can be very dangerous, even in weak tornadoes, and should not be for sheltering people. These types of rooms have inherent structural weaknesses lack of roof support, making them especially prone to collapse in strong or severe winds.

Caitlin-Morgan provides insurance and risk management programs for educational institutions, and can help you put together a plan for your insured, including higher education facilities such as universities, public schools, private & charter schools and schools for special needs. Just give us a call at: 877.226.1027.

Sources: AP, NOAA,