Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools both were destroyed by the EF-5 tornado with winds reaching 200 mph. Though the state of Oklahoma has more than 100 schools equipped with safe rooms, neither of those two facilities were so equipped. The state has an active database for homeowners and commercial entities to register their storm shelters to aid evacuation efforts. It would make good sense for Kansas to adopt a similar strategy.
Alabama, which faced its own tornado a few years ago in Tuscaloosa, is the only state requiring safe rooms be built in schools. Safe rooms are supposed to provide “near-absolute protection” in extreme weather events, including tornadoes and hurricanes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website. “Near-absolute protection means that, based on our current knowledge of tornadoes and hurricanes, the occupants of a safe room built in accordance with FEMA guidance will have a very high probability of being protected from injury or death.”
About $67 million has been spent to build safe rooms in 29 Kansas counties since 2001, according to a report in the Wichita Eagle based on information provided by Sharon Watson, director of public affairs for the Adjutant General’s Office. The agency is in charge of handling emergencies statewide. More than 85 percent of the safe rooms built in the state have been in schools, according to the same report, with Sedgwick County leading the way.
Locally, two Ottawa elementary schools that were constructed with bond money — Lincoln and Garfield — include safe rooms. Wellsville’s high school and middle school’s choir and band rooms feature three sides of concrete walls to serve as a safe room of sorts for its students, however, the same can’t be said for its elementary school.
Central Heights has a music room in its basement that accommodates the school’s nearly 600 students, if needed, in case of bad weather, as well as two fortified areas in its middle school. District officials discussed utilizing an 80 percent-FEMA funding source to help pay for the construction of a safe room at the school’s sports complex, which is across the road from its campus, however, those FEMA funds ran out before the district’s plans could come to fruition.
Many older schools across the state, including those at West Franklin, don’t include safe rooms, though the school in Williamsburg has a basement-level locker room that could provide shelter from a tornado. West Franklin school district’s proposed bond issue, for which ballots were mailed to voters last week, has the planned addition of six classrooms to the north of the district’s Pomona building that would be fortified to withstand tornadoes and would accommodate all of the district’s students and staff.
Many school districts already have safety committees in place to address natural disasters and other possible calamities at their facilities. This week’s incidents and the late commencement of tornado season are stark reminders to school districts, as well as their patrons and communities, that speed might be of the essence to prevent loss of life.
— Jeanny Sharp,
editor and publisher