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. 

Paul Hellstern / The Oklahoman / AP
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.

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.

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.

“If you live in Tornado Alley, [building safe rooms] is certainly something you’ve got to take a look at,” says Huff.

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.

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.

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.”

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