Schools face tough calls with Tornado outbreak
March 7, 2012By Cavalier Dave Forrester of Hugh M Cummings High School
Schools face tough calls with tornado outbreak
HENRYVILLE, Ind. — The tornado came at the worst possible time for the hundreds of students loaded on school buses, ready to head home in Henryville, Ind.
There was no time to follow the preferred safety plan and herd students off the bus and inside the school. Instead, an assistant principal signaled drivers to go, setting off a desperate race to beat the tornado that was just minutes from slamming into the town and destroying a large part of the school.
Unlike snowstorms or hurricanes, which come with plenty of advance warning, tornadoes pose unique challenges for school districts because they can pop up suddenly, leaving little time to scramble to safety. School officials say the choice usually boils down to dismissing class well in advance or sheltering students in the school until the bad weather passes. Neither is guaranteed to save lives.
“When you look at the fact that the average amount of time from a tornado warning being issued to a tornado touching down is five to seven minutes, you can’t get them to a safe place in that amount of time,” said Bob Roberts, emergency management coordinator for Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma.
InHenryville,whatseemed like bad timing turned out to be fortunate. Despite harrowing encounters that forced one driver and students to duck into a crawl space and another to seek cover with children on the floor of a car, all the students survived back-to-back tornadoes that devastated the town about 20 miles north of Louisville, Ky.
“The very hallways we would have had those kids in, the ceiling collapsed. Those kids would have been crushed,” said John Reed, assistant superintendent of West Clark Community Schools.
But canceling school every time there’s a tornado watch isn’t practical, since some areas have daily thunderstorms, and many storms never develop actual tornadoes.
“In Kansas in the spring, you would never have school,” said Mike Nulton, superintendent of the North Lyon County School District in Kansas, who has been in charge of two schools hit by tornadoes.
School officials’ decision can depend in part on the strength of school buildings — some in Oklahoma, for instance, have FEMA-certified safe rooms — and the types of homes in the area. Consideration also goes to whether an adult will be present when a student is dropped off.
Oldham County, Ky., school Superintendent Paul Upchurch said his district has dismissed early once in seven years, and it “was very, very rough.” Some children arrived home alone and didn’t know what to do as the storm approached. The district now requires parents to pick children up if there’s an early dismissal or they’ll be sheltered at the school.
School leaders and weather experts say there’s no solution that fits every scenario. In Madison County, Ala., school officials prefer to send students home instead of keeping them in school because that reduces the potential for mass fatalities, said Geraldine Tibbs, communications director. But other districts think schools may be the best place to seek shelter.
The Associated Press
This Saturday photo shows an American flag flying over the damaged gym at Henryville High School in Henryville, Ind.