Tornado safety in schools

Yesterday afternoon, the second EF-5 tornado in 15 years struck the town of Moore, Oklahoma. As a nationwide audience watched the live coverage from local TV station, the tornado leveled roughly 30 square miles, including two schools, plus damage to three more and to a hospital. I don’t know what it is about Moore, but it seems to be a tornado magnet.

Historical tornado tracks (colored by intensity) from tornadohistoryproject.org. This does not include the 2013 EF-5.

Historical tornado tracks (colored by intensity) from tornadohistoryproject.org. This does not include the 2013 EF-5.

From what I’ve read, the school day had not yet ended when the tornado struck, which meant the schools were full. As the immediate shock wears off, some of the discussion will inevitably turn to the question of whether the schools should have dismissed early. In my opinion, the answer is “absolutely not”.

While it’s true that (as of this writing) nine children died, it’s quite possible the death toll would have been even worse. If the students don’t get home before they tornado hits, they’re sitting ducks in the school bus or walking home. During last year’s Henryville, IN tornado, a bus driver returned to school after an early dismissal, saving the lives of the students aboard.

Even if the students make it home, that’s not necessarily much safer. Numerous homes in the damage path were leveled. In other cases, students live in mobile homes or otherwise weak structures. It is tantamount to a death sentence to send them home in such conditions. This was the case in Enterprise, Alabama in 2007. While school officials received criticism for this decision, they made the right one.

Having students on the road during a tornado is obviously not the answer. Having students at be home isn’t particularly compelling in many cases. Because we cannot yet predict the specific path of a tornado until it has formed, it’s hard to make the argument in favor of cancelling classes. While some students have been killed by staying at school, it remains the best option available.

3 thoughts on “Tornado safety in schools

  1. It would have been a lot better situation if the schools had some storm rooms.

    We leverage the collected strength of the group to deal with situations like tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. Oklahoma is one of the states that should have community storm rooms, or at least all schools should.

    Should this extend to hospitals as well? Maybe. I don’t know if they need to go to the lengths the new hospital in Joplin, MO, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.

    We are getting better warnings. We need to get better places for people to shelter in when they have sufficient warning to get there.

    gizmo

  2. I agree with gizmomathboy about a school storm shelter since weather like this would have been nothing new when they designed and built the school buildings. On the other hand, I have to say that you’re right about how the alternatives would have been far more disastrous and deadly. I give kudos to the schools for working with the options they had and making the right call even though I am sure they won’t hear it nearly as much as they ought to.

  3. Gizmo is entirely right that they should have some sort of storm room. Oklahoma soil is not conducive to underground structures, so they would have to be above ground. I’m not sure about the logistics of a room that would be large enough to hold an entire school and also resistant to flying SUVs. I’m even less sure that the public is willing to fund such structures.

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