Archive for Thursday, March 8, 2012

Schools prepare for tornado season

March 8, 2012


St. John School Principal Pat Newton still gets emotional talking about the day nine years ago when she stood on stage during a spring performance of “Alice in Wonderland” and told the crowd to take cover.

“They were so orderly,” Newton said of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students as they left the stage. “They went down into the hallway and, like they practiced, crouched down with their hands behind their heads.”

She then dismissed the parents.

“We had to take cover. I don’t know for how long, maybe an hour,” Newton said. “It was scary.”

The May 8, 2003, tornado didn’t hit the school, but it did do significant damage to an apartment complex and homes in southwest Lawrence.

The night was one of the few times the veteran educator can remember putting all those years of tornado drills to use.

“You can’t plan enough. It is so important to come up with a plan and follow it and talk about it. It is just really important,” Newton said.

Last week’s devastating series of tornadoes throughout the Midwest raised tough questions on what schools should do when severe weather threatens to hit during the school day.

According to The Associated Press, students in Henryville, Ind., were loaded onto buses last Friday just as a tornado was headed their way. While bus drivers raced students home, the storm destroyed a large part of the school. All of the school’s students survived, but some of them had to seek shelter in crawl spaces or on the floor of a car.

Tornadoes often come with little warning and force administrators to make the tough call of whether to send students home in advance of a storm or to shelter them in schools.

Douglas County Emergency Management Director Terri Smith said every school, even those within the same district, have different policies and procedures for severe weather. And the call of what to do often lands on the school principal.

“We just give them the information and they make the determination on what to do with it,” Smith said.

This summer, Free State High School had to re-evaluate its tornado plan when 400 ninth-grade students were added to the building.

“The spaces we used before weren’t ample enough,” assistant principal Mike Hill said. “We had to add more.”

At both St. John and Free State, parents are free to pick up their child if severe weather is looming, but neither school would send children home. Free State also won’t let students who drive to school leave.

“It would be hard to say any place is bulletproof. But we feel confident in the facility and its ability to protect the kids should we be hit directly by a tornado,” Hill said.

At Free State, Hill said students would go to interior rooms that don’t have windows or exterior walls during a tornado. Classrooms that aren’t in the interior of the school have a designated room to go to during a tornado warning. Once in the fall and twice in the spring, students are required to practice tornado drills.

“Some kids are jammed packed in there,” Hill said of the rooms.

Only once has Hill seen students take cover for real. It was a Friday afternoon after school and there were still students in the building and athletic teams practicing nearby.

“It went off without a hitch,” Hill said. “No one was in harm’s way.”

On the day of the May 8, 2003 tornado, Newton said they had known bad weather was on the way and were monitoring the storms. It helped that Newton’s husband, Bob Newton, worked at Douglas County Emergency Management and was on duty that night.

Before the play began, Newton explained what the evacuation procedures would be and that they would stop the play if the sirens went off. While the children obediently took cover, Newton said it was a little harder to manage their dads, who in typical Kansas fashion went outside to look at the clouds.

“At first I worried about them, but then I thought I had done my (part),” Newton said.

After the all-clear was given, the students returned to the stage and the show went on.


Kat Christian 6 years, 3 months ago

good time to post this... and did you all know according to Emergency Management here in Lawrence whom I spoke to the other day there is NOT, I repeat NOT a public shelter where anyone can go to be safe during a tornado. If you do not have a basement or other shelter you are basically on your own of SOL. My suggestion is for neighborhoods to join together and devise a plan where neighbors who do not have a basement can come to be safe during a tornado. It is bad enough to have a home destroyed, but to know someone died because they had no safe place to go is a tradegy that should not occur. I can't believe so few homes were built here in Lawrence without a basement knowing we are located on the tip of tornado alley. Goes to show the arrogence of man and the lack of human compassion. I only wish I could build a shelter in my backyard - only I rent and can't afford it. So neighborhoods get together and devise a plan - have a drill and be prepared. I think we are in for a wicked Spring this year.

Liberty275 6 years, 3 months ago

We always head to the parking garage at KU. That's the only place I can think of with 4 dogs in tow. If they go, we go. Besides, I think you can go to the adjacent building's basement and get at least in ten feet into the tunnel even if the doors are locked.

We rode one out in KU's big library when I was a student, but I refused to come in the door until they let my dog in.

If we know it's gonna miss our place, we leave the dogs at home and chase. So far we've only caught wall clouds and what might have passed for funnels.

We were caught getting gas when the down-burst hit and would have headed for the beer section in back had it been 10 times worse. If it can't throw a car, I'm going to stay and film what it can. Too bad I didn't have a cell with a video cam back them.

If you don't panic and think ahead, you can think of lots of places you'd rather be in nasty weather. It would be nice if they would at least cut us in on some of the hardened places around.

Maybe even the local newspaper could handle that.

Susan Lee 6 years, 3 months ago

That is a wonderful idea, Sunshine Noise. In working with Habitat for Humanity (in another town) I discovered that it is not that much more expensive to dig a basement. Ideally, we could all have/afford underground yard shelters, which are the safest places to be. Some are actually fabricated near McPherson, and can be purchased for as little as $2000, INSTALLED! Here is a great site with information

I find it inconscionable that apartments in Lawence do not have to provide a safe tornado shelter for those who reside in them.

In this state, that is a basic safety necessity.

Fatty_McButterpants 6 years, 3 months ago

I'm confused. Is the possibility of severe weather striking here during the school day a new concept for them? Seriously?? Great googley moogley, there was a movie made about it over 80 years ago!

Jean Robart 6 years, 3 months ago

what movie are you talking about, Fancy?

Bill Lee 6 years, 3 months ago

Most homes are no safer than the schools are. The biggest difference is the number of people at risk or safe. It's pretty much a crap shoot either way.

Fatty_McButterpants 6 years, 3 months ago

Tornadoes in Kansas?! And they may strike during the middle of the school day?!? What malarkey is this?? Next you'll tell me that things fall to the ground because of gravity!

Rae Hudspeth 6 years, 3 months ago

And if the school were to do this, what of the kids with parents who work out of town? If I were a working parent like that, and the school dumped my kid at home instead of taking the care to keep them safe at school, there would be hell to pay. Let's not get the minivan circus of kiddie pick-up mixed with severe weather make even more panic and havoc on the roads.

Which entitled stay-at-home parent is pushing for this senseless initiative?

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