Schools turning hallways into FEMA approved storm shelters

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MOORE, OK (KTVI)-- Nobody will ever forget the heart-wrenching pictures broadcast across the nation in the hours following the Moore, OK tornado nine months ago; students climbing from the ruble of destroyed school buildings and frantic parents running to the scene searching for their youngsters.  The storm claimed the lives of seven 3rd graders at Plaza Towers elementary school, but many more were saved.

Despite the tragedy of that day, experts agree it could have been so much worse.  Teachers and school officials credit their focus on tornado drills and preparedness for saving many lives.  Teachers and students knew what to do and when to do it.

"There`s no doubt lives were saved that day," said Jennifer Simonds, a kindergarten teacher at Plaza Towers.  School district representative Jimi Fleming agrees.  "On that day when we got word that we needed to take our tornado precautions, everybody knew what exactly they need to do and they did it immediately.  It`s how we were able to survive as well as we did," he said.

What failed the school was the building.  It was no match for the EF-5 twister.  Now a new Plaza Towers is rising from the ground and it`s a model for any new school being built in Tornado Alley.

"We are going to have FEMA rated storm shelters that are in place. From the inside of the building they will look just like any other classroom," says Fleming.

Building new schools from the ground up is not an option for most school districts.  In Henry County, Tennessee, they wanted to build a shelter within an existing school.  Last summer they contracted with TLM Associates to encase the school hallways in steel and concrete - turning those hallways into FEMA approved storm shelters.

Jason Pirtle, of TLM Associates says the new shelter fits within what`s already there and the youngsters don`t even know it is there.  "This way the teacher can just grab them and pull them right into the shelter and lock the door and they are safe," says Pritle.  The new hallway fortress can protect as many as 900 students and staff.

Other shelter options exist as well.  Webb City schools in southwest Missouri just last week contracted with ABC Domes to build a new dome shelter that will double as an athletic facility.

TLM Associates

Remagen SafeRooms

National Storm Shelter Association

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  • Mike Land

    West Moore was damaged in May 3, 1999 tornado and they installed safe halls for the students there. A lot of the citizens wrongly believed that Moore had done the same with other schools but in reality they hadn’t. So West Moore has the shelter and the kids went there last year when the tornado hit. It only got light damage mostly from debris falling on the building. It was used as the MARC, multi agency resource center. Now people must realize something about schools that create tornado shelters on the premise. This is not a public shelter. It is for when school is in session. If its like a Saturday or 7pm at night, you cannot get in your car and drive there thinking you are taking shelter in it. Several things are considered in not opening it up. First are the key carriers being able to make it to open the doors. Next is physical limitation of the shelter. Then there is financial liability for people who may sue for a fall or other reason. Then there are the people who died in their vehicles, on May 3rd, who were trying to flee the storm and got caught and then the tornado tossed their car a mile away and eventually police found their mangled car and remains. Lastly, for the life of me, I do not understand why schools don’t do like the old John Glenn elementary that had a whole school complex under the playground. That was the best case scenario for any disaster such as biological weapon, tornado, and nuclear threat. But it is closed and they built a new school across the street, all above ground.

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