Behind the Forecast: Can schools be tornado-proofed

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Behind the Forecast: Can schools be tornado proofed

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The school year has just begun for many students and for parents and school faculty, safety is a top priority. One of the most serious threats is severe weather. Is there a way to ensure our student’s safety from severe weather like tornadoes?

Seven years ago, a tornado ripped through southern Indiana barreling right into Henryville Junior-Senior High School. Around 80 staff and students were inside the building when the tornado hit, tearing the gym apart and caving in the entire south end. Thankfully, no one was killed at the school.

Unfortunately, other situations across the country have not ended that way.

On March 1, 2007, an EF-4 tornado ripped through the city of Enterprise, Alabama. It killed eight students at Enterprise High School and injured at least 50 others.

On May 20, 2013, an EF-5 tornado marched through McClain County, Oklahoma. It destroyed Briarwood Elementary School but thankfully no students were killed there. However, when it hit Plaza Towers Elementary School, seven children were killed when a wall collapsed.

Many schools have taken steps to ensure the safety of students, faculty, and staff. Each has a plan in place for severe weather situations. For example, Jefferson County Public Schools’ (JCPS) Safety and Emergency Procedures Manual details how each teacher is assigned a safe area for their class which is designated for each schools’ classroom. Students are instructed to shelter in their safe places in one of the following positions:

  • Rest on knees, lean forward, and cover back of head and neck. 
  • Sit on floor, cross legs, and cover back of head and neck.
  • If space does not permit use of the first or second suggested position, stand and cover back of head and neck with crossed arms. Wraps or coats should be used as coverings in case of a tornado.
  • Open books can be used during an event for cover 

Most people know where to go if a tornado strikes. An interior room with no windows on the lowest floor of a building is the best place to shelter if there isn’t a basement. However, most schools don’t have basements for students to shelter in.

Scenes from a snowy Henryville, IN on March 4, 2012.
Scenes from a snowy Henryville, IN on March 4, 2012.

In many schools, the designated safe area is a hallway. Depending on the type of building these can be quite safe. Schools with open floor plans and retrofitted walls are more likely to see those walls collapse when the roof is compromised, according to It’s also important to note is that interior hallways with doors on both ends can easily funnel strong winds and debris, which of course can be incredibly dangerous.

Many buildings are currently rated for 90 mph winds which is within the range of an EF 1 tornado. EF-5 tornadoes, the strongest category, can have winds that exceed 200 mph; this can easily rip apart anything in its path. (The Enhanced Fujita Scale, which is used to measure the strength of a tornado, takes into account not just the wind speed but also 28 other damage indicators including trees, structures, and building type.) Keep in mind that on average Indiana sees 22 tornadoes per year and Kentucky sees about 21.

A school bus on its side at Henryville Junior-Senior High School.
A school bus on its side at Henryville Junior-Senior High School.

The Department of Housing, Building , and Construction (HBC) updated the Kentucky Building Code to require all newly constructed schools, with a capacity of 50 or more, to include a tornado shelter within the facility. The new requirements went into effect on January 1, 2019.

  1. The shelter may be incorporated into a single or multiple enclosure(s) within the building, or consist of an additional free-standing structure on the school site.
  2. The shelter must be reinforced to withstand a direct tornado hit, including flying debris, and be separated from the rest of the building with a 2-hour firewall rated assembly.
  3. The shelter must have its own restrooms, emergency generator to power independent lighting and ventilation, plumbing and water storage tanks.
  4. The size of the shelter shall be determined by including 5 square feet for each person according to the “calculated” occupant load, which is considerably more than the students, staff and faculty typically determined by the KDE program requirements. For comparison, a 750-student school would need a dedicated tornado shelter approximately the same size as an elementary school gymnasium.

Indiana does not have any requirements for storm shelters for newly constructed schools Timperman explained.

Tornado damage at Henryville Junior-Senior High School.
Tornado damage at Henryville Junior-Senior High School. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

To be “tornado-proof,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a structure should be able to withstand 250 mph winds. Also, the walls should be able to resist a 15-pound 2-inch × 4-inch board traveling horizontally at 100 mph; this is basically a missile. For this to happen a room must be reinforced with concrete and sometimes steel.

One school that’s taking extra precautions to keep their students safe is Bradie Shrum Elementary School in Salem, Indiana. Officials worked with Larry Timperman of Kovert Hawkins Architects and FEMA on a grant program to build Indiana’s first school safe room. The room is coded to handle 250 mph winds, an EF-5 tornado, and is built with hurricane-proof windows and thick walls can hold up to 1200 people. With about 1000 people on campus including students and staff, everyone at Bradie Shrum can shelter in the safe room. It does not look like a safe room though. It is a new addition to the existing building that is made up of four classrooms and a presentation room. Windows are hurricane-proof with thick poly-carbonate glass, shutters for those windows and strong doors, Lawrence J. Timperman from KovertHawkins architects explained in a WAVE 3 News interview. They were able to build this safe room with the help of a FEMA grant.

Salem Middle and High Schools, as well as Crawford County High School, are working through the grant process in order to build their own safe rooms.

Bradie Shrum Elementary School's safe room is rated for 250 mph winds.
Bradie Shrum Elementary School's safe room is rated for 250 mph winds. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

A school district in Oklahoma took a different approach. Healdton Public Schools installed seven bulletproof storm shelters in their elementary school and two larger shelters in the middle school. The shelters can hold up to 35 students and two teachers, according to TODAY. These shelters take up a corner of the classroom and often serve as a quiet or reading area until needed.

At the end of the day, preparation is key. Knowing where to go and what to do is significant; this is why drills and evacuation plans are vital. Being properly informed when there is a potential for severe weather is very important. Make sure to have a way to get notifications when dangerous weather threatens. The WAVE 3 Weather app is an option.

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