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.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
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.'

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.

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.

Reflecting back over what happened on the day of the storm and over the preceding months of the school year, I am very satisfied that we took the proper steps during the morning to ensure that our students and staff were in the best possible position to be protected from severe weather issues. We followed state-mandated practice drills during the seven months prior to the storm, and our students and staff reacted admirably on the day of the tornado due to the drills we had run.

At the beginning of each school year, I would have an emergency management specialist from the county’s Emergency Management Agency office come in and walk our building and give advice on where the safest spots were. These were subject to change from time to time due to renovations, building additions, etc. But our people were in the safest areas of the school when the tornado hit.

We also had in place a crisis management team consisting of 20 staff members who were trained in first aid and CPR and carried bags with first aid supplies and were assigned to particular areas of the building in the event of a crisis. They reacted professionally, and after the storm, they provided critical first aid and also served as the liaisons for the first responders as they entered the building.

We did everything by the book and as rehearsed. The one factor that always comes into play is that you can never truly anticipate the devastation that a tornado of that magnitude can do, or what a fire, bomb, chemical spill, etc. might do to a school. In simplistic terms, you have to prepare for the worst and pray for the best.

In regard to “safe areas” in schools, I am not sure that there is such a thing under certain conditions. But I do believe that the reinforced rooms that are being built in tornado-prone areas of the US now do give people a much better survival chance if hit by EF4 or EF5 storms. The biggest issue with the building of these rooms is the cost. FEMA has had programs that refund much of the construction costs for these rooms, but we found that red tape involved with the process is tremendous (and should be improved).

When we built the new high school in Enterprise, we had safe areas constructed within the building that can house up to 3,000 people. We would not have been able to afford this had it not been for the FEMA grants. The problem was having personnel assigned to spend the time necessary to wade through the bureaucracy of it all.

Being as prepared as you can possibly be is key to being able to survive these types of devastating events. Every school is unique in the type of construction of its buildings, age, etc. These things are factors that come into play when a storm hits. We, as school administrators, must take what we have and devise that best plan possible to take care of the students and staff in our charge.

That is certainly what the school administrators seem to have done in Moore. As the town begins to rebuild its schools, it will have the opportunity to construct even safer spaces for students. FEMA’s support may be critical in this process, though residents may need patience and persistence to cut through red tape. With or without FEMA's help, the cost of building safe rooms is far outweighed by the benefit of better protection for our children and school staff.

Rick Rainer is the superintendent of the Elba City School System in Elba, Alabama. He is a 37-year veteran in the education field, serving the last 23 years as an administrator in the Enterprise City School System. He was principal of Enterprise High School when the 2007 tornado hit.

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