Dave Olson, Published May 22 2013
No standard haven from tornadoes at area schools
When the new $40 million school reopened in Wadena last fall, it included a tornado-proof gymnasium big enough to shelter 1,200 people. It has walls made of concrete one foot thick.
Wadena may be a rarity, however, as a check of several school districts around the region, Fargo and Moorhead included, found no buildings designed with tornado-resistant features in mind.
The danger posed by tornadoes was underscored this week by the powerful twister that struck Oklahoma on Monday, killing 24. At least seven of the dead in Moore, a suburb south of Oklahoma City, were children taking refuge in a school.
By law, Minnesota schools are required to annually conduct five fire drills, five lockdown drills and one tornado drill, said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.
Along with the tornado drill, Hovis said, schools are also required to have a crisis management plan in place that includes a response in case of a tornado.
North Dakota law also requires schools to conduct fire, tornado and other emergency disaster drills, including lockdown drills.
Neither state requires school buildings to have tornado resistance built into them.
Based on Wednesday’s check of several school districts in the region, it appears that when tornadoes threaten, most direct their students to assemble in interior hallways and rooms like bathrooms that have the least exposure to external winds.
In Fargo, school principals largely decide where kids should go if a tornado appears, said Jim Frueh, director of maintenance and operations for the district.
He said schools must hold at least three evacuation-type drills each year, three lockdown drills and three shelter-in-place drills, the latter usually being two tornado drills and one drill for hazardous material spills.
Frueh said at the new Davies High School, the safest places to be during a tornado are the school’s corridors.
“Our corridors are built pretty strong,” he said. “We don’t build hurricane-proof buildings.”
In Moorhead, areas most students will head for if a twister threatens are their school’s interior hallways and rooms, according to Wayne Kazmierczak, assistant superintendent.
The exception is the high school, which has a large underground level.
“That would be where they evacuate to,” said Dan Bacon, the district’s director of property services and transportation.
Bacon said at one time the high school was considered as a possible tornado shelter for the nearby neighborhood, but the idea was dropped because there was no way to ensure the school would be unlocked when people needed it.
Kazmierczak and Bacon said Oklahoma’s experience this week had them wondering about what they would do if a tornado threatened the school district offices where they work, a building that also houses preschool and kindergarten programs.
“We were thinking about what are options are and our options are somewhat limited,” Kazmierczak said.
“We have, like I say, interior rooms and interior hallways. We try to avoid the east/west hallways to avoid wind tunnels,” he added.
When the Lake Park-Audubon School District recently built a new high school, no tornado proofing was considered, said Dale Hogie, superintendent of the west-central Minnesota school district.
“We’ve got locker rooms, we’ve got restrooms, we’ve got a couple other classroom spaces that don’t have outside windows, so we use those areas for our tornado drills,” said Hogie, who added the district follows safety advice from a health and safety officer employed through the Lakes Country Service Cooperative out of Fergus Falls.
Hogie said school officials originally believed a multipurpose room attached to the new school’s gymnasium would be a good place to go in case of a tornado, because its walls were made of stout concrete blocks.
The school’s safety officer nixed the idea.
“The roof was deemed not to be tornado resistant,” Hogie said.
Wadena Superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom is glad students were on summer vacation when the tornado struck in 2010. Hallways where students would have been sent if school had been in session weren’t as safe as she hoped.
“The hallways actually ended up being more like a wind tunnel, with debris,” she said.
A nearly $1 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security helped pay for the construction of Wadena’s new school. Its roof can stand up to the strongest tornado, an F5, Dahlstrom said.
“You would never know when you drive up that it’s a separate building constructed to take 250 mph winds,” she said.
Dahlstrom said more Minnesota schools should consider tornado-proof buildings, but notes that cost and space are often the main barriers.
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Some material in this report was provided by MPR News 90.3 FM.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555.