A teacher standing at a white board in the background and the back of a child's head in the foreground
Source: Taylor Flower/Unsplash.

Protecting Schools - Tornadoes & Other Natural Disasters

On 20 May 2013, a deadly EF5 tornado ripped through parts of Oklahoma. Two miles wide at one point, with winds reaching 200 mph, the tornado cut a 22-mile path similar to the one caused by another massive tornado that struck the state, in the same general area, in 1999. The death toll from the latest EF5 tornado stands at 24, with more than 100 other people injured.

Seven of those killed were students at Plaza Towers Elementary School, one of two schools in the tornado’s path. Local residents helped pull the students from the rubble after the school’s roof had been torn off and its cinder-block walls knocked down. Briarwood Elementary School also took a direct hit. Several children were initially trapped inside the building, but all were eventually rescued and reunited with their families.

Teachers from both schools followed procedure by moving students to the innermost areas of the respective schools. Covering their heads with their hands and backpacks, the children were instructed to get down on their hands and knees. Both schools were totally demolished, and it seemed significant in the aftermath that neither had received the funding needed to build safe rooms. Because the severe weather was predicted, with a 15-minute plus warning, neither school released its students at the regularly scheduled time but opted instead to shelter in place.

When schools and disasters are mentioned in the same sentence, many people often think of tragic school shootings – such as that at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, on 14 December 2012. However, as several recent storms and tornadoes demonstrate, many other types of disasters can and do affect schools in every country.

In 2012 alone, an estimated 32 million people around the world were displaced by various types of disasters, and many schools were destroyed or significantly damaged. A recent 2008 risk assessment of schools in Northern California revealed 16 discrete types of disasters that already had occurred or could occur. Each type – including active shooters, drought, and sink holes, for example – is currently being addressed – but all still require additional mitigation measures. The U.S. Department of Education Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, which funded the 2008 assessment and other projects for elementary and secondary schools as well as higher educational institutions, was abolished in 2010.

School Tragedies – Deliberate, Natural & Accidental

Almost unimaginable today is the fact that the largest number of deliberate deaths in the United States – school children and staff combined – occurred in Bath, Michigan, on 18 May 1927, when a member of the local school board, apparently upset because of an increase in taxes to support the school, planted homemade dynamite bombs in the school’s basement. Only half of the bombs worked as intended, but they still killed 45 students and school employees. The school board member later killed himself in front of the school by blowing up his car, which was packed with additional explosives.

Not quite three decades later – at Our Lady of The Angels School in Chicago, Illinois, on 1 December 1958 – a devastating fire cost the lives of 92 children and three nuns, the most deaths caused by a school fire in the nation’s history. When the fire started, super-heated gases killed many children who were still sitting at their desks, pencils in hand. Their deaths occurred rapidly, and they had no chance to react.

From a strictly U.S. historical perspective, the most school deaths occurred on 18 March 1937 in New London, Texas, where students were preparing for an interscholastic meet in nearby Henderson. At 3:17 p.m., a shop instructor simply turned on a sanding machine – and by doing so triggered a massive explosion when a random spark ignited natural gas that had leaked and accumulated in a crawl space beneath the school. In an instant, a large section of the school building disintegrated, and almost 300 students and teachers died. The blast caused by the explosion was heard many miles away. Today, more than 76 years later, the New London Museum, which stands across the highway from the site where the original school was destroyed, keeps alive the memory of the local generation of children who died on that terrible day.

Student Predilections & the Joplin Model of Courage

Ongoing research shows that long-term difficulties following a school disaster are most likely to be seen among children encountering and/or already suffering from the following during or shortly after the incident: threats to their physical safety; a fear of death; severe emotional distress; lost personal belongings or residence; relocation; or enrollment in schools with numerous schedule changes, double sessions, and/or other significant disruptions.

There is another and much brighter side of the picture, though. On Sunday, 11 May 2011, a devastating tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, shortly after 5:00 p.m., destroying and damaging rooms extensively across the city. Six schools were totally destroyed: Joplin High School, East Middle School, the Franklin Technology Center, Irving Elementary School, Emerson Elementary School, and the Old South Middle School (a transitional facility that was vacant at the time the tornado hit). Several other schools – Cecil Floyd Elementary, Duquesne Elementary, Kelsey Norman Elementary, and Roi S. Wood Administration Building – suffered major damages or partial losses.

Realizing the enormous devastation actually caused, and recognizing the deadly potential if the tornado had hit during the regular school day, it was surprising that only seven students and one school employee were killed. Even more encouraging, though, is the fact that the citizens of Joplin and the surrounding areas exhibited the community’s strong resilience, built upon years of extensive planning, intensive training, regular drills and exercises, and updated technologies and interoperability to rescue and recover those in harm’s way.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency provided a rapid and powerful support network for the city. However, FEMA Search and Rescue Teams did not really need to be deployed, thanks primarily to the preparedness efforts of Missouri’s own state and local partners. In addition, the Boone County, Missouri Task Force 1 Search and Rescue in Columbia, a long-time (and highly professional) FEMA team, was nearby and a ready responder.

Those groups, teams, and individual citizens immediately began an inspiring recovery by making the rebuilding of the school – in time for the regularly scheduled fall session, less than four months later – an immediate top priority. The 2011 celebrations devoted to and centered on the opening of schools, as planned and on schedule, will serve for many years to come as a proud symbol of the city’s model comeback and united community spirit.

FEMA’s Helpful Planning Guidelines

The FEMA Emergency Management Institute has developed a significant number of independent study courses to help school officials prepare for a broad spectrum of such events in the near and distant future. One course that focuses on Multi-Hazards Emergency Planning for Schools is available for independent study and for in-room, on-campus learning. This course provides school officials with specific information on: “understanding incident management; forming the planning team; understanding the situation; developing a school emergency operations plan; incorporating the Incident Command System principles and roles in the school emergency operations plan; and training, exercising, and maintaining the school emergency operations plan.” According to FEMA’s website, and the course objectives postulated, participants who successfully complete the courses will be able to:

  • Describe the activities related to the key areas of incident management;
  • Describe how the school emergency operations plan (EOP) fits into district, community, and family/personal emergency plans;
  • Identify the school staff members who should be appointed to participate on the school planning team;
  • Similarly, identify members of the local community who also should be on the school planning team;
  • Identify the most likely natural, technological, and human-caused hazards that might be encountered;
  • Identify and assess the hazards most likely to impact a specific school;
  • Describe each and all components of the traditional EOP;
  • Identify the various steps required to approve and disseminate the school EOP;
  • Describe the Incident Command System (ICS) principles and organization;
  • Identify the ICS roles included in the individual school EOPs;
  • Explain the benefits provided by training and exercising the school EOP;
  • Identify the types of exercises available to exercise the school’s plan;
  • Describe the steps available for developing and carrying out effective training drills and exercises; and
  • Describe how exercise results should be used to improve school preparedness efforts.

To briefly summarize, the 21st century is both immensely hopeful, but also fraught with danger. Material abundance and advanced technology contend with international strife and sudden natural and manmade disasters, the most difficult of which are those affecting the lives of young children. Significant progress has been made in mitigating at least some of these disasters, but by no means all of them. Much more remains to be done – and will be, if enough citizens and their elected and appointed leaders provide the resources needed to build a better world for tomorrow.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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