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Preparing for the worst

CCA commissions a study to determine what’s best in case of a tornado

OXFORD– While many things can qualify as a “worst-case scenario,” one situation bound to top the list every time is a tornado hitting a school while it is in session. The nightmare has come true several times with three of particular note.
On April 21, 1967, a tornado scored a direct hit on the Belvidere, Ill., High School just as students were loading buses at the end of the school day. Thirteen deaths and 300 injuries were reported at the school. According to Tom Grazulis of The Tornado Project, this was the nation’s sixth-worst school death toll from a tornado.
Xenia, Ohio’s high school was struck on April 3, 1974, during the 148-tornado Super Outbreak. Fortunately for Xenia, most students had already gone home for the day when the twister struck. However, some were practicing for a play in the school’s auditorium when somebody saw the funnel approaching. After the storm had passed, they discovered a school bus, upside down, on the stage.
More recently the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., was hit by an EF-4 tornado on May 20, 2013. The National Weather Service (NWS) in Oklahoma City stated seven children died in the devastated school after a cinder block wall collapsed.
In January of 2013, the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) School Board of Directors began discussing better ways of sheltering students and staff in the event of a tornado or straight-line winds. The board was developing plans for what has since become Tiffin Elementary and Keith Johnk, then an architect with Shive-Hattery (the district’s architectural and engineering firm) proposed reinforcing the music and art rooms to withstand an EF-3 (Enhanced Fujita scale, category 3) tornado. Schools in this geographic zone are built to withstand 90 mph winds, Johnk said. An EF-3 packs winds up to 165 mph. Research by Shive-Hattery’s structural engineering team showed that over 90 percent of all tornadoes are EF-3 or lower.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has specific standards for “tornado-safe rooms,” which call for the ability to withstand 250 mph winds, or an EF-5 tornado. FEMA also requires six-square feet of space per person, emergency supplies, lighting, ventilation and restrooms. Johnk noted at the time the 2015 building codes would require “high wind-safe areas,” and while tornado shelters were relatively rare, it was “a sign of design trends to come.”
Johnson County Emergency Management Director Dave Wilson met with the CCA board in February of 2014 and encouraged them to put in a “tornado-hardened room” of some sort. Wilson noted historically tornadoes in Johnson County tend to be EF-0 through EF-2 in nature, but added building to withstand an EF-3, in his opinion, should be the standard. Wilson also said emergency managers cringe at the thought of people taking shelter in hallways, even though they have been among the primary shelters, for decades, in schools. “The preference is for a dedicated and reinforced shelter,” Wilson said.
When Oak Hill Elementary (opening in August) was designed, it was based on Tiffin Elementary, with the addition of an EF-5 rated shelter. Tandi Brannaman, the lead architect with Shive-Hattery on the project, said in May of 2018 the gym would be constructed as a shelter, and would be the first such space in the district. In February, the board approved a motion authorizing Shive-Hattery to design the new gym for Clear Creek Elementary (CCE) in Oxford to serve as an EF-5 rated shelter with a capacity of 1,000. The design increased the project budget by $400,000, which will be paid for through the project’s contingency funds. Future plans indicate the district will incorporate shelters in new buildings.
But what to do with the existing buildings?
The board authorized a $17,500 contract with Shive-Hattery to perform a structural study of all buildings in the district without a shelter to determine what is, and more importantly, what isn’t the safest place in the event of a tornado. The action came during the board’s regular meeting Wednesday, May 15, at CCE.
Roger Edwards, a Meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., published a website titled Tornado Preparedness Tips for School Administrators. Edwards wrote, “The most important part of tornado safety in schools is to develop a good tornado safety plan tailored to your building design and ability to move people. I have found, through damage surveys and other visits, that a lot of schools settle for a cookbook-style, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to tornado safety– often based on outdated literature– which can be dangerous when considering the fact that every school is built differently.”
Brannaman explained the contract to the board, saying the survey would make some recommendations for improvements. “Say you have a corridor that looks like it’s to be the safest area, but you don’t have doors isolating it. It would not include a major overhaul design (such as replacing a roof to create a shelter space).”
Board member Steve Swenka asked what the district has been doing about sheltering. “Doing what we think is best,” Superintendent Tim Kuehl responded. “There just hasn’t been any kind of a formal study.”
Brannaman said every building has a space, which would be considered the “safest,” although it may not be up to the requirements of a dedicated storm shelter. Part of the challenge for the structural engineers who will be conducting the study is the variety of construction employed, particularly at Amana Elementary and the current Middle School (which has undergone several additions and renovation).
“You guys may have designated areas that are based on rules-of-thumb, interior spaces, spaces without windows, lower level spaces,” Brannaman said. However, depending on how the building was constructed, “rules-of-thumb” could be negated. She gave the example of roof decking, which could fail, leading to debris raining down on those huddled in the hallway below. “There’s always going to be places safer than that, so are goal is to find the safest place.”
The final report will not state there is absolutely no place to go, she said. “There will always be someplace that’s safer to go to than somewhere else. It’s not comparable to what you’ll have at Oak Hill, but it’s going to be the safest for the building,” she added.
The engineers will look at the total occupancy of the building, factor in how much space is needed per person, determine where they would all fit, and then designate the safest place for them to shelter. If that space isn’t big enough, a second shelter space will be determined.
Brannaman made clear what the survey will and will not do.
“I’ll be as frank with you as I can, and I don’t want to scare anybody. That’s not our goal, but your buildings aren’t designed to withstand a tornado. They weren’t designed that way,” she said. “But there are certain areas that are going to stand up better than others.” The study will not assign an equivalency, for example stating a space at North Bend will withstand an EF-2 tornado, or a space at Amana will survive an EF-3. “We can’t do that since we didn’t design (some of) the buildings,” she said.
The survey, Brannaman said, will provide the district with definitive shelter spaces not based solely on rule-of-thumb or suggestion, but based on what truly is the safest space. It could mean changing established plans, she noted, but they will gain peace of mind. “There could be simple solutions,” she said, to make a space safer, such as adding doors to a corridor.
And, with the district’s continuing growth, expansion and new construction will continue. The survey will highlight which existing buildings have the greatest need, which could then factor into expansion or other construction plans. Included in the contract is reevaluation if enrollment significantly increases in a building, which may lead to a need for additional spaces.
Once the survey is complete, each building will receive a map clearly showing the shelter areas. Brannaman said she would encourage the buildings to hold a tornado drill, to see how the plan works, and added Shive-Hattery staff would likely observe the first drill in each building, with the possibility of offering further suggestions.
Brannaman added the survey would be completed before the start of the new school year, allowing for time to implement any changes.
The board approved the contract 5-1 with Matt McAreavy, Nikki Knapp, Bob Broghammer, Jennifer Mooney and Terry Davis in the affirmative, and Swenka in opposition. Board member Kathy Swenka was absent.