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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At Plaza Towers, older children from the school were apparently bused to a church – which turned out to be out of the path of the tornado – while younger students stayed behind. It wasn’t yet clear Tuesday why that decision was made, but emergency experts said that it may not always be feasible to evacuate students from a school, and younger students can be particularly tricky to move, since they often aren’t as good at following instructions. In addition, schools are often considered the safest buildings in a community – though when hit directly by a powerful tornado, that may still not be enough.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Facing the devastation of the Oklahoma tornadoes
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Plaza Towers apparently did have a basement – which in many cases, say experts, is one of the safest places to go. And yet the seven students who are confirmed to have died in the school may have drowned there. "Some of the children drowned because they were in the basement area, water came in," Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb told CNN. (A later report from emergency management officials indicated the students who died may actually have been sheltering in above-ground classrooms.)
Floodwaters can certainly be a danger in a basement, but that doesn’t mean that basements aren’t still one of the safest places to ride out a tornado, says Paul Timm, president of RETA Security, an Illinois company that specializes in school security.
“This is a game of risk management,” says Mr. Timm. “We’re never going to get it to zero.” Being in a hallway that turns into a wind tunnel is generally far riskier than a basement, he says, noting that it’s highly possible that many of the actions Plaza Towers and Briarwood took saved dozens or hundreds of student lives, even with the seven fatalities.
Timm and other experts agree that many of the protocols adults grew up on are now considered outdated. Gymnasiums, cafeterias, and hallways are often the worst places for people to shelter – though they’re still the default tornado location in many schools. Restrooms, locker rooms, and interior classrooms or offices are far better. Getting down from a second floor is critical – upper stories are always the first to go in strong tornadoes – and it’s best when people can put two walls between them and the outside.
Issues like the length of roof spans and strength of door frames can matter. In all districts, they say, officials should know their buildings well, and go through them with emergency management personnel to figure out ahead of time the absolute safest areas.
In Oklahoma, at least, and other Tornado Alley states, most schools take the risk of tornadoes very seriously. In many other areas, where tornadoes can occur but are less common, it’s not unusual for a school to have no procedures in place or never do a drill, says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit that helps schools improve crisis preparedness and campus safety.
“We see a lot of [emergency] plans becoming cop-heavy, with an emphasis on gunmen,” says Mr. Dorn. “We’re out of balance. We should be practicing equally for all events.”