By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
Watching scenes of this week’s Oklahoma tornadoes brought strong memories to Monroe County Superintendent Scott Cantrell.
He was on the Smithville School campus on April 27, 2011, shortly after an F5 twister devastated that town, destroyed its school and killed 17 residents.
The F5 tornado in Moore, Okla., also destroyed two schools – Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary.
“I knew without even seeing those folks the exact look they all had on their face, that ‘what just happened’ look and a shocked look,” Cantrell said. “I could just imagine the frantic pace of people trying to find relatives and friends and kids. That is obviously a much larger place than Smithville, and the numbers made it that much more of a difficult situation.”
When tornadoes strike during the school day, as they did in both situations, administrators face a difficult decision. Do they dismiss early and clear their campuses or do they keep students at school buildings with the belief that they are much sturdier than average homes?
Students were still in school when the tornado struck in Moore, and seven people died at Plaza Towers school. However, many also escaped and – given the damage done to the surrounding neighborhood – it is possible more would have been killed had they not been at school.
Cantrell had made the decision to dismiss students more than an hour before Smithville was struck after monitoring the weather and seeing it was in the path of danger. Students were not on campus when that twister hit.
His plan was to prevent so many people being clustered in one spot. In Smithville’s case, its students lived throughout a wide geographic area. Cantrell would only make such a decision, he said, if he had enough time for students and bus drivers to safely get home.
“We’re looking at over on hour for that,” he said. “You really have to have some good forewarning and depend on the weather service.”
Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks also said he would make a similar call with enough warning.
“If we have time to get students safely off campus, I feel better knowing those children are with their parents and their parents know where they are,” Weeks said.
Others, such as Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden, believe students are safer in stronger buildings. Loden said he would not be likely to dismiss early, although he would not prevent parents from checking out students.
“We do feel like our buildings are safer than the average home and much safer than the average automobile,” he said, adding he particularly worries about releasing young children whose parents are not home.
Another question raised by the Oklahoma tragedy is how to make schools safer before twisters strike.
When Tupelo expands its Early Childhood Education Center, it will put large safe closets in every classroom. The enclosures will be enforced with concrete and rebar, have concrete doors and also have concrete on top to add protection if the roof is destroyed. Its two newest schools, Parkway and Lawndale Elementary, have concrete slabs above their hallways.
Part of the new Smithville campus, which is expected to be ready in August, will be a dome that will serve not only as the school’s gym but also as a shelter for students and community members.
With 16 inches of concrete on the bottom and four inches on the top and no corners for the wind to grab, it is built to withstand winds of 300 to 400 miles an hour, Cantrell said.
The district plans to build similar structures by 2014 in Hamilton and Hatley to serve as PE gyms.
They cost about $100 to $120 a square foot, he said, but the district received a Hazard Mitigation grant from FEMA that will cover 75 percent of the cost.
“At that point, we don’t have to worry about dismissing early,” Cantrell said. “We just need to know 10 minutes in advance.”