Shelter From the Storm

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Updated: Fri, 01 Nov 2013 10:22:30 EST

Since 1993, countless schools have been hit by tornadoes resulting in 30 fatalites including 25 students.

In 2007, 8 students were killed when an tornado ripped through Enterprise High School in Alabama. The most recent case of tornado related school fatalities was just this Spring. On May 20, 2013, 7 students were among the 24 dead when a massive twister devastated Moore, Oklahoma and demolished the school.

Since the deadly tornado outbreak, talks of mandating storm shelters at schools in areas prone to tornadoes have resurfaced. In fact, the 2015 International Building Code will require all news schools in those areas to be designed with storms shelters.

Despite the tragedy, statistics show that over the past 30 years, schools remain one of the safest places to seek shelter from a tornado.

Twice a year, every school in the state of Georgia is required to hold a severe weather drill, one in November and another in February.

"We do use the interior hallways because that's considered the safest area in the school," said David Gowan, Director of Safety and Risk Management for Bibb County Schools.

Gowan says in the event that severe weather is imminent for Bibb County, he keeps close contact with the county's Emergency Management Agency and monitors the National Weather Services severe weather outlooks.

He'll notify faculty, staff and parents through email and assure parents the school is the safest place for their kids.

"Construction of a school is a little stronger than a residential home or certainly a trailer," said Gowan. "For any students we have that are in portables, they come back inside and we do monitor the wind and our portable classrooms. If the winds are 40 mph or near that we bring those students in for the rest of the school day until that wind threat is over."

Once the first tornado warning is issued for Bibb County, all students and faculty of his 41 schools head to their respective hallways, huddled with their heads protected. Teachers are to make sure the hallways are clear of loose items such as chairs and maintenance equipment and the doors are closed.

That protocol was followed at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma. But one of the walls collapsed and 7 students were killed.

The 2015 edition of the International Building Code is expected to mandate storm shelters for new schools with 50 or more occupants located in areas where tornadoes are possible with wind speeds up to 250 mph.

That would include central Georgia in an area that spans nearly half the country. Affected areas would go from northern Wisconsin to southern Mississippi and western Texas to western Pennsylvania.

Alabama is currently the only state to mandate all schools be equipped with storm shelters.

There's an 80-square foot facility in Thomasville, Georgia that specializes in the design and fabrication of state of the art shelters, from residential shelters to underground bunkers. The company is called Survive-A-Storm.

"This is our 3/4" steel pre-rolled, prefabricated community saferoom," said Amber Gruszeczka, a FEMA 361 Saferoom Consultant. She says saferooms are getting attention of schools, communities and residential facilities like mobile home parks.

"Our goal is to make sure all students, all teachers, are safe in tornado prone areas," she said.

All shelters are assembled on site. The shelters were given a 250 mph wind rating by Texas Tech University's Wind Science and Engineering Center. They're equipped with a quarter-inch steel exterior, reinforced with two layers of rebar and anchored by 140 thousand pounds of an 18-inch thick concrete foundation.

"It becomes one big monolithic structure, it's not going anywhere," said Gruszeczka.

Gruszeczka says for many schools the shelters are a more practical and economical than the gymnasium-sized $2.5 million alternative. But for many schools, the smaller shelters would still be a big investment

"A lot of schools you would need multiple shelters," said Gowan. "So, that would be a significant expenditure of school district capital."

Bibb County would be looking at a hefty check if it was mandatory to have to buy shelters for storms.

There are roughly 25,000 students enrolled at 41 Bibb County schools, that's an average of 610 students per school. Each community shelter can house about 100 people, add in faculty members and it would take 7 shelters per school to house all on the 41 campuses. Therefore, the school system would need 287 shelters at $75,000 each resulting in a number that adds up to over $21.5 million.

It's a price tag that may seem ridiculous but is only half of what it would cost to equip each school with one massive shelter of its own.

"We've come up with this solution so that if schools chose to or once they start to build their community safe rooms they'll be able to afford to build their saferooms," said Gruszeczka.

Gowan says he's keeping an eye on states that have issued mandates and believes if it happens in Georgia, schools will be more than willing to pay for a building they hope they'll never have to use.

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