Quick Questions and Answers about Tornado Safety in Schools

The horrible events at two schools in Moore, OK have brought the topic of tornado safety to the front lines of national talk, and for good reason.

As always on this BLOG, these are my personal thoughts, not necessarily those of my employer.

Are there guidelines for schools to plan for tornadoes?

Absolutely, and here they are. Those are general guidelines, though, because every school has different needs and logistics. It cannot be a single solution that works for every one.

How do schools best get the warning?

As advocated in the link above, the way to get warnings direct from the National Weather Service, no middlemen, is by weather radio. Weather radios have been offered or distributed to schools nationwide. The weather radio needs to have working batteries at all times in case power is out, and needs to be set for the county. Private-sector smart-phone apps can be very useful too, because they can narrow down the warning to your GPS location inside a county. However, phone apps only work if cell and Internet service is working. If the cell towers are down or overloaded, your app might be undependable. So for highest awareness, you still need a working, battery-tested weather radio.

What do we do with schoolchildren when severe weather threatens…lock down and shelter in place? Send them home?

It depends. Sorry, but that’s the best answer. It’s a messy issue, because in some cases, kids are safer at school than at home (if they live in a mobile home, apartment or dilapidated, substandard house construction). In other cases, the schools have grossly inadequate and unsafe shelter and are better off sending kids home with a tornado watch. This should be a local community decision, not one-size-fits-all policy for a big area. Second-guess all you want about what happened in Moore, but…

There is no such thing as guaranteed safety inside a tornado!

Shouldn’t all schools in “Tornado Alley” have safe rooms? Shouldn’t the federal government require that?
In order:
Yes and no.

I strongly, strongly, strongly support the notion that every school in the most tornado-prone areas has an engineered tornado shelter! It should be done to the greatest extent school districts can prioritize budgets in that direction. However, let’s acknowledge that realistically,
1. These are austere times–as such, it won’t happen at all existing schools for a variety of reasons, budgetary and logistically; and
2. Until it does, every school without such shelters needs to have a situational plan.

Schools cannot wait for the rules to change. They need to plan for their situation as it exists now while trying to secure safer shelter for the future. That’s why the above linked school page exists–to help schools to prepare, wherever they are in the process.

Personally, I am against any sweeping federal regulation because that’s a mindless, heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach, typically with unfunded mandates. Regulatory burdens can hurt as much as help. To wit (from this ABC story):

    Moore has been trying to get federal money to subsidize residents who want to buy safe rooms. The city expressed its frustration in February on the city website, saying, “We’ve found that the FEMA requirements and their interpretations seem to be a constantly moving target, more so with the new wrinkles.”

Let’s set aside the non-trivial givens of red tape and inefficiency. Even without those, a national, one-size-fits-all federal mandate wouldn’t work well unless all schools are identical. They’re obviously not. Such regulations would be enforced by distant, detached and unaware Washington bureaucrats who are beholden to politics instead of people, and who are invariably ignorant of local community needs and situations. The rules need to be state and local–general at the state level and specific at the local level.

No two schools are the same; and all disasters are local. As such, so are the solutions. Each community needs to decide its own priorities and act accordingly. The proper federal role here is a supportive one, such as with engineering guidelines for safe-room construction, broadcasting to weather radios, offering safety information, and providing the timely and excellent forecasts and warnings that are improving by the year.

Are there well-prepared schools?

You bet! There are too many to name, so I’ll use the example I know best. In Norman, the elementary school my kids attended (Washington) used to have no reinforced sheltering of any sort, except for some interior bathrooms that might have been adequate for EF2-EF3 tornadoes. The school got overcrowded and needed expansion in the early 2000s. Part of that addition included an interior classroom with “safe room” standard concrete walls and ceiling, steel doors and no exterior windows.

The morning after the Enterprise AL tornado (which killed 9 kids in a school hallway), the Washington principal and I did interviews with CNN to showcase some of what could be done, including a look at that reinforced classroom. I only can hope that inspired some school admins to consider doing the same thing. Even a “safe room” might not handle an EF5; but very little can. While they are well-engineered, I still would not want to be in one if it is hit by a dump truck angling down at over 100 mph. Fortunately the odds of that worst-case scenario are extraordinarily tiny.

But what about the worst tornadoes, EF4s and EF5s?

The good news:

    1. Over 98% of tornadoes are not EF4 or 5.
    2. Only a minority of the damage area of rated EF4 and EF5 tornadoes has those extreme levels of damage. This was true even for the Moore, OK tornadoes in 1999 and 2013.

To be inside of an EF5 damage swath is a grave misfortune of the worst order. It’s no consolation to the families of those third graders at Plaza Tower Elementary, but there is nowhere safe except outside the tornado. Even underground has some risk. If the news reports are right, seven of those kids drowned when a basement or below ground-level area of some sort flooded, likely due to busted water pipes. As a parent, this is just heartbreaking.

Where are the best places to be in case of a violent tornado?

In order:

    1. Out of its way.
    2. Underground steel or concrete shelter.
    3. In an engineered, above-ground “safe room“.
    4. Lowest level, center part, smallest room of a very well-built structure.


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