By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Analysis and improvement of schools’ storm procedures is nothing new for scholars like Stephanie Hoekstra, whose master’s thesis was based on this topic in 2011.
“I was interested in K-12 districts and tornado warnings, particularly the role of superintendents,” Hoekstra said. “I got interested because 25 percent of the population is in a public school district, but these students have no legal recourse or autonomy in decision making, so the superintendents’ authority in making situational judgment calls is pretty huge and they typically have little or no meteorology knowledge.”
Hoekstra worked with Social Science Woven into Meteorology, a program promoting collaborative research and partnerships between the social sciences and the physical sciences.
Hoekstra’s research was on a national scale, focusing on schools in the northeastern portions of the country — where tornado expertise is significantly lower than districts in Oklahoma.
In an effort to find common errors in procedure/storm warning response and make improvements, Hoekstra gathered information from various districts about procedures and the consideration given to storm warnings by administrators.
In many cases, she said, her findings were “disturbing.”
“In terms of sheltering, gyms and cafeterias were common, but that’s a terrible place to shelter students, being a wide-open area with vulnerable structure points such as windows,” Hoekstra said. “In one case, students were originally sent to the cafeteria according to planned and then moved to another part of the school after the warning was already in effect. This is serious because time is such a crucial component of schools’ appropriate response.”
NOAA Storm Prediction Center Meteorologist Roger Edwards agrees in his essay “Tornado Preparedness Tips for School Administrators.”
“Large, open-span areas such as gymnasiums, auditoriums and most lunchrooms can be very dangerous even in weak tornadoes and should not be used for sheltering people. This sort of room has inherent structural weaknesses with lack of roof support, making them especially prone to collapse ...” Edwards writes.
In accordance with Edwards’ recommendations, firsthand accounts indicate students at Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools were moved to the most enclosed areas of their schools — hallways and bathrooms — and crouched down against walls.
In her interview with an Oklahoma City newspaper reporter, Plaza Towers second-grade teacher Shelly Calvert said students — including the third-grade class that tragically suffered fatalities — were in the gym for class activities the afternoon of May 20 and were moved to the hallways immediately when warnings were issued.
Calvert’s account indicated that students were crouched against the wall according to protocol and said the wall collapsed when a south-facing door and the roof overhead was ripped off.
“There is no guaranteed ‘safe place’ in a tornado,” Edwards writes. “But ideally the lowest possible level is the safest ... to determine structural strength of upper floors, professional architectural engineers with wind engineering experience must be consulted.”
Moore Superintendent Susan Pierce said this type of evaluation was standard for the district, with professionals identifying the safest parts of schools for sheltering and site administrators running drills multiple times a year to ensure fast response time.
“I found that yearround preparation was common, as was professional review,” Hoekstra said. “My greatest concern once the research was over was for local forecasting offices to reach out and develop stronger relationships with schools to produce the best plans — superintendents shouldn’t be expected to be authorities or experts on weather.”
Ultimately, Hoekstra’s and Edwards’ expert opinions on ideal school storm procedures reached similar conclusions.
“Builders can line with concrete enough interior rooms in the school to create a series of safe rooms to hold students, safe rooms aren’t just for houses,” Edwards writes. “They can also be retrofitted into existing facilities, but that is usually much costlier than building them in new construction ... such measures won’t come cheap — but can ultimately save lives.”
“There are few tornado shelters for schools in the Oklahoma area and even fewer below-ground shelters,” Hoekstra said. “Sheltering is definitely something that schools need to change.”