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Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Safe room to protect Bishop Seabury Academy students, staff

January 8, 2014

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Bishop Seabury Academy has a new addition at their school that can double as a "safe room". Able to withstand tornados and other natural disasters, the new addition has cement reinforced ceilings and back-up power. The building will serve as new boys and girls lockerrooms and a dressing room for the theatre department. Don M. Schawang, head of school gives a tour of the new space Wednesday.

Bishop Seabury Academy has a new addition at their school that can double as a "safe room". Able to withstand tornados and other natural disasters, the new addition has cement reinforced ceilings and back-up power. The building will serve as new boys and girls lockerrooms and a dressing room for the theatre department. Don M. Schawang, head of school gives a tour of the new space Wednesday.

On the surface, Bishop Seabury Academy's new locker rooms look fairly typical. They have a concrete floor, painted cinder block walls, a metal roof and sports lockers painted in the school's official color of royal blue.

But the new facilities are anything but typical. That's because the locker rooms were actually designed to to serve another purpose — to provide "near-absolute protection" for the 186 students and the school staff in the event of a devastating storm or other kind of disaster.

The hollow areas within the cinder blocks are filled with steel reinforcing bars and concrete. And the metal ceiling is covered by a poured concrete roof.

"In addition to that," head of school Don Schawang said, "in the center room (separating the two locker rooms), there's a server as well as furnaces that will keep the building running in the event we should lose power, which is very likely."

"So it's a bunker," he said. "The way it was described to me, it could withstand missiles."

Bishop Seabury held an open house Wednesday to show off the new rooms, which were funded in part with a $451,554 grant which Douglas County Emergency Management helped secure for the school through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The two locker rooms — the boys' and girls' — are designed to meet FEMA's standards for a community safe room, which includes being able to withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour. That was the estimated strength of an F-5 tornado like the one that struck Joplin, Mo., in 2011, killing 158 people, or the one that leveled Greensburg, Kan., in 2007, killing 11.

Those and other storms have helped raise public awareness about the need for safe rooms, especially in schools where large numbers of children are concentrated and which frequently don't have basements or underground shelters.

In fact, Schawang said, the idea for building a safe room at Bishop Seabury came from a member of the school's Board of Trustees who served as a first responder after the Joplin tornado.

"Before we had the fundraising, the occasional parent would ask, what do you do, what's the procedure for safety," Schawang said. "It was like just about any school — the occasional hallway, the occasional room. The same is true at most schools, unfortunately."

Lawrence school district officials have said they are also making provisions for storm safety as part of the building renovations being funded with the recently passed $92.5 million bond issue.

Schawang said the FEMA grant covered a little more than half the total cost of the safe room, which he said was more than $800,000.

The project was part of larger renovation project at the school, which is housed in what was formerly the Alvamar Racquet Club at 4120 Clinton Parkway.

Schawang said the safe rooms were well worth the investment, even though he hopes they never have to be used for that purpose.

"It's just the security of knowing it's here," he said.

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