Tornados damage and destroy schools every year, but many school designers and planners continue to propose new facilities that do not incorporate storm safety techniques. They often subscribe to the “it can't happen here” idea or argue that making schools safe is too expensive.
On the heels of two violent storms that damaged schools in 2007, education planners need to make sure they understand how to protect students by incorporating tornado shelters that are effective and affordable.
A reminder of the risk
Two storms this year serve as reminders that tornado safety is vital for schools. A March 2007 tornado in Enterprise, Ala., killed eight high school students — the largest death toll in a school tornado in many years. As the storm raced toward the town, school officials determined they didn't have time to carry out their emergency plan and send students home, and the deaths occurred when masonry from a collapsed interior corridor wall and the steel roof structure fell on students huddled in a corridor.
In May, an EF5 tornado — the most damaging level — in Greensburg, Kan., destroyed 95 percent of the town and killed 10 people. Schools were not in session, but there could have been dozens of injuries and deaths if the schools had been open.
About half of the continental United States is situated in 200 mph+ design wind load zone; the majority of this zone is east of the Continental Divide. Many planners believe that tornados occur only in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. On the contrary, 23 states have at least a portion of their population that lies within the 250 mph wind zone.
Schools generally are more prepared for other types of disasters than they are for tornados. For instance, schools threatened by hurricanes generally get several days of advance warning. And in some cases, schools in hurricane-prone areas are the designated community shelters and have been built to withstand a storm's wind and debris forces. Facilities in earthquake zones also are constructed to higher standards and often built as post-disaster recovery shelters. Schools threatened by flooding usually have advanced warning too, so students are not in the building when the waters rise. Moreover, fire safety for school facilities is stressed in both fire and model building codes.
So why do school planners often take tornado shelter design less seriously? In part, a number of myths and misperceptions exist about tornado safety planning.