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Opinion

How Moore, Okla., can cut through FEMA's red tape and build safer schools

On March 1, 2007, an EF4 tornado killed eight students at Enterprise High School in Alabama, where I was principal at the time. I would urge Moore, Okla., officials to assess how they handled Monday's tornado, yes, but also look forward to how they can rebuild safer schools.

By Rick Rainer / May 23, 2013

A sign stands outside the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., May 22. Seven children died in an EF5 tornado that flattened the school Monday. Op-ed contributor Rick Rainer says 'cutting through FEMA’s miles of red tape' to get funding to build reinforced rooms in schools 'is worth the effort to ensure our students are even better protected from future storms.'

Rick Wilking/Reuters

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Elba, Ala.

On March 1, 2007, an EF4 tornado ripped through the southern Alabama town of Enterprise. In its wake, hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed. But the single most tragic event was the destruction of Enterprise High School, where I was principal at the time, and the deaths of eight students.

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The question that naturally arose after the tragedy is one that residents of tornado-ravaged Moore, Okla., are likely asking themselves now as well: What could have been done differently that might have averted the disaster – especially in schools full of children? As community members begin to process the destruction and loss from the EF5 tornado that swept through Moore Monday afternoon, I would urge them to reflect, yes, but also to look forward to how they can rebuild better than before.

Constructing reinforced rooms and better safe areas in schools – made possible by funding support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency – was a key component in building a new high school in Enterprise. Speaking from experience, I can say that cutting through FEMA’s miles of red tape is worth the effort to ensure our students are even better protected from future storms. Even without FEMA funding, building safe rooms should be a priority for Moore. But there’s also no substitute for well-rehearsed tornado drills.

In Enterprise six years ago, the day began as do many spring days in southeast Alabama ­– a chance of thunderstorms with some possibly severe. As a high school principal, weather watching had become second nature. Even though I had never experienced an actual tornado, I had been under watches and warnings more times than I dare to guess.

By midmorning, it was apparent that this particular day was going to turn ugly. The reports that we received from the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Fla., pointed to the worst of the stormy weather getting to our area between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. The decision was made at approximately 9:30 a.m. to release students from school early at 1:00 p.m., which would give students plenty of time to get home before the worst of the weather arrived. Plans were set into motion to notify parents, bus drivers, and everyone who would play a role in this process.

At approximately 11:00 a.m., we went under a tornado warning – not a watch, but a warning. This means that a tornado has been sighted in your area. Teachers reacted as they had been trained and had practiced numerous times. The school’s crisis team was mobilized, and students were moved from classrooms to the predetermined safe areas of our school. Most warnings last approximately 30 minutes, but on this particular day, we never came out of the warning mode.

By noon, it was becoming apparent that we would probably not be able to release our students as planned. At 1:12 p.m., the EF4 tornado struck Enterprise High School.

We lost the lives of eight wonderful students that day. And I would be less than honest if I did not say that I, personally, beat myself up for several days asking what we could have done differently to avoid the tragedy and prevent their deaths.

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