Mary Beth Marklein , USA TODAY
The teachers and students in Moore, OK, were as prepared as anyone could have been to respond to the devastating tornado that struck Monday, several school safety experts say.
The Oklahoma City suburb had been through it before. In May 1999, tornadoes ripped through the community, killing 36 people. This week's tornado left at least 24 dead, including nine children, and destroyed two elementary schools. But teachers and other school officials are being hailed as heroes for responding just as they had during untold numbers of routine disaster drills over the years.
When Monday's storm loomed, school officials "knew to treat it seriously," says Ken Trump, a Cleveland-based national school-safety consultant. "When you have any loss of life, especially children, it rips our hearts out. But had the community not had that history, the preparedness lessons learned right in their own back yard, the losses could have been even worse."
Moore Public Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce told reporters Tuesday that administrators at every school put the district's crisis plan into action as soon as the district was warned of severe weather, and that the district holds more tornado drills each year than is required. "When it was time to shelter, we did just that," she said. "When our children are at our schools, they are in our care."
News reports throughout Tuesday repeated stories of schoolchildren who had been instructed to hold on to the walls or put backpacks over their heads as chairs and other debris flew overhead, and of teachers who shielded them, sometimes by lying on top of them.
Oklahoma has reinforced tornado shelters in hundreds of schools across the state, but the two that were hit this week, Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary, did not have them, emergency officials said Tuesday. Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, told reporters a shelter would not necessarily have saved more lives at the Plaza Towers, where seven children sheltering in above-ground classrooms were killed. He said each jurisdiction sets priorities for which schools will get limited funding for safe rooms. He says no disaster mitigation measure is absolute.
Schools present unique challenges because the population they serve is especially vulnerable. "We have the most precious commodity in the community concentrated in a very small area, and that's our children," says Chuck Hibbert, an Indiana-based national school safety consultant.
Ever since April 1999, when the Columbine High School shootings ushered in a new era of school safety, and especially since the Sandy Hook tragedy in December, "we're finding that schools are rushing to look at how to strengthen their capabilities" to prevent disasters, and to respond when they do occur, says Victoria Calder, director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University-San Marcos.
Nevertheless, state-level commitment is spotty. The center's records show that 26 states have school safety centers, in many cases created by state law, that offer training and resources for safety concerns ranging from sexting to violence. Five states had such centers but have lost funding for them, and 19 states, including Oklahoma, have no such centers in place.
Much of the recent emphasis has been on bullying and mass shootings. Last month, for example, an Oklahoma commission created in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings recommended to Gov. Mary Fallin that state law be amended to require "school intruder" drills, along with disaster drills for fires and tornadoes.
Emergency preparedness is "not an exact science," but standard practices when tornadoes strike are still the best: Seek shelter in the safest place you can find, and hunker down, says Joe Wainscott,the recently retired head of Indiana's office of homeland security who oversaw the response and recovery of a tornado last year in Henryville, Ind., that killed 13 people.
Trump says most schools in the nation would not need to go the extra step of building special storm shelters, "but it might make good sense in higher risk areas like Oklahoma or Kansas."
Chuck Hibbert, an Indiana-based national school safety consultant, is not familiar with the schools in Moore, Okla., but says many newer schools around the country are vulnerable to disaster. "We have too many wide open expanses, too many large auditoriums, cafeterias, and large-group instruction areas. You don't have to be any kind of engineer to understand that the larger the expanse of the roof the greater the chance of collapse," he says. "We've built too many schools in this country for aesthetic viewing, and not for school safety or for emergency sheltering."