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Oklahoma tornado's aftermath: How safe were schools in Moore?

Two schools were directly hit by the EF5 tornado in Moore, Okla., on Monday, and seven students at one were killed. Neither school had a safe room, but with storms this powerful, experts say there are no guarantees. 

By Staff writer / May 21, 2013

Teachers carry children away from Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City yesterday. A monstrous tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs, flattening entire neighborhoods with winds up to 200 mph, setting buildings on fire, and landing a direct blow on the elementary school.

Paul Hellstern / The Oklahoman / AP


As rescue and recovery efforts continue in Moore, Okla., following the devastating tornado that struck Monday afternoon, attention has focused, in particular, on the schools that were hit – and in some cases, largely demolished.

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Rescue workers pulled several students alive from the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School on Monday, but at least seven of the confirmed 24 dead from the tornado were students at Plaza Towers. It was unclear Tuesday whether there were still more students unaccounted for from the school.

Briarwood Elementary was also severely damaged, though all students seem to have survived. Survivors from both schools have described terrifying scenes as roofs were ripped off and walls collapsed, and in several instances teachers protected students by lying on top of them. Teachers and students also spoke of following well rehearsed drills, hunkering down in bathrooms and closets, and holding backpacks and books over their heads for additional protection.

It’s too soon to know the ultimate cost of Monday’s tornado, in terms of both life and property, and certainly too soon to know whether the emergency procedures that the schools had in place were the best they could have been.

Experts that have helped schools hone tornado-preparedness plans and who have seen the devastation they’ve caused in other communities note that with a tornado as strong as this one (it was confirmed Tuesday as an EF5 on the Fujita scale, the highest ranking, after a preliminary designation as an EF4) there often isn’t a perfect solution, or any way to guarantee complete safety – though a lot of things can make a difference.

“If we had school in session [when the Joplin tornado struck], we’d have been dealing with a lot of the same issues they’re dealing with in Moore, Okla., now,” says C.J. Huff, superintendent of the schools in Joplin, Mo., where an EF5 tornado decimated the town in 2011, killing 162 people.

The Joplin tornado struck on a Sunday afternoon, when the school buildings were empty. But, says Dr. Huff, 10 school facilities were hit by the tornado, and nine of those were completely destroyed. He was able to watch some video footage of the hallways afterward – hallways that, in the past, had been designated as shelter areas for kids during a tornado.

“Those hallways become big wind tunnels when you have that much force,” he says, describing debris and projectiles that shot through them. “We don’t shelter kids in hallways any longer. We move them to interior classrooms and bathrooms and areas away from hallways.” In addition, Joplin has used FEMA and other grant money to add safe rooms within all of the schools it’s rebuilding, ones that can serve not just students and faculty but others from the community as well.


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