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.
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“If you live in Tornado Alley, [building safe rooms] is certainly something you’ve got to take a look at,” says Huff.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Facing the devastation of the Oklahoma tornadoes
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With the high frequency of tornadoes in Oklahoma, hundreds of schools in the state do have FEMA-certified shelters, but neither Plaza Towers nor Briarwood had one. Officials Tuesday said that it’s up to each jurisdiction to set priorities for which schools get funds for safe rooms, but emphasized that having one wouldn’t necessarily have saved more lives.
The main reason that schools lack them is cost. Especially for an existing school, retrofitting it with a storm shelter can be cost-prohibitive. FEMA has funds available in communities that have been hit by a tornado before – as Moore was in 1999 – but retrofitting undamaged buildings can still be cost-prohibitive and in many cases involve substantial red tape, says Steve Satterly, director of transportation and school safety for Southern Hancock Schools in New Palestine, Ind., and an expert on school tornado safety.
When Henryville, Ind., was hit last year by an EF4 tornado and two schools were largely destroyed, they opted not to rebuild with a shelter, he notes. Doing so would have involved a lot of bureaucratic hoops and a big delay, and there was strong interest in getting the schools reopened as soon as possible to help the community rebound and get back to normal.
In addition, Mr. Satterly notes that hindsight can be perfect, but that many of the decisions schools have to make around tornadoes happen in an instant, with a situation that’s impossible to predict.
The high school in Enterprise, Ala., hit by an EF4 tornado on March 1, 2007, was criticized by many for not sending students home when there were tornado warnings, and eight students in the school were killed. But the intense storms throughout the day would have made sending the students home highly risky, Satterly says, noting that buses are often the worst place to be, and that Enterprise actually did everything by the book.
“Sometimes,” he says, “no matter what you do you’re still in extreme danger because of the strength of the tornado.”
In Henryville, officials actually did send students home, since many were already in buses. It wasn’t an ideal situation and could have ended badly, but worked out; the buses got out of the way, the students all survived, and the school buildings suffered extreme damage. Had students been there, they would likely have been hurt.
“One of the lessons you get from all of [these instances] is that you want to plan ahead what you’re going to do, practice what you’re going to do, and when it hits, you’ve got to stick with that plan,” says Satterly.