Learning from Joplin, building safer schools

JOPLIN, Mo. – The world will not soon forget the images from May 20, 2013, of children crawling out of their broken school building terrified.

Hundreds of kids weathered the storm that day in the safest building they could find, their school.

We now know that was not a safe place for the seven children who were killed inside Plaza Towers Elementary and for the others who were injured.

Moore Plaza towers elementary school

Districts across tornado alley are asking some important questions this summer; mainly, how can our community do better for next time?

The Joplin, Missouri School District is one of the few districts in the country that faced that critical question head on.

May 22, 2011, Sunday afternoon 161 people lost their lives when the deadliest tornado in 60 years crawled through that community decimating 8,000 homes.

The Joplin School District was directly in the path.

Ten school buildings were damaged, six schools were nearly wiped from their foundations.

Joplin is recovering with purpose. Joplin tornado

District Superintendent Dr. CJ Huff said the district is still in the process of re-building six facilities.

How many schools will have a FEMA-rated safe room?

“All of them,” Huff said. “Even the ones that are undamaged.”

Joplin Schools are adding FEMA EF5-rated safe rooms to every school, even the buildings that had no tornado damage.

Joplin will have a safe room for every student and staff member in the district, plus community shelters for anyone within a five-minute walk of a school.

It sounds like a remarkably expensive undertaking, and it is, but Huff said they had no choice.

“There was no other option other than building storm shelters at every location,” Huff said. “I mean, how do you say to a parent that the kids at one school are more worthy of having that type of safe location than another? Parents want some assurance that their children are safe and rightfully so. I feel confident that when these projects are complete we’re going to be able to look them in the eye and say we accomplished that.”

The math, as always, is complicated. Joplin gym

Some of the Joplin School District’s losses were covered by insurance.

The district also had donations and state and federal help.

When it comes to the cost to upgrade and build safe rooms, they got the vast majority of their funding from FEMA.

Structural engineer Brian Orr wrote 16 grant applications for the district, which received about $30 million in funding.

“Safe rooms are affordable,” Orr said. “If you’re building new construction, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t put a safe room in it.”

Architect Michael Sapp, of SAPP Design, has been building FEMA shelters in Missouri schools since the 1990s.

FEMA money has been a windfall for the schools in Missouri who have used those federal dollars to build community shelters in the schools.

The benefits are two-fold when building multi-use shelters; students and staff have a safe place to go and districts get to take advantage of additional year-round space.

“Most of our folks are being able to have cafeteria spaces, high school gym, performing arts centers and classrooms,” Sapp said.

Joplin HS

Joplin’s Irving Elementary is under construction right now.

Irving will have two EF5-rated safe rooms, including a special education classroom which can hold the student staff population of about 550 people and the school gym, which will hold 5,000 members of the surrounding community.

When it’s all said and done, the district pays less than half of the cost of these multipurpose safe-rooms, in some cases they foot the bill for as little as 15 percent.

“Just knowing you can sleep well at night because that layer of safety or security is there for the kids especially, it’s huge,” SAPP architect Jim Stufflebeam said.

Re-building with safety as the top priority is not the quickest method.

The high school student at Joplin High will start the fall semester at a temporary location, Northpark Mall, for a second year.

Administrators were so concerned about safety they purchased temporary storm shelters, concrete boxes which sit in the parking lot of the mall.

Joplin storm shelters

They are unusual looking but they are EF-5 rated and they are safe places where students and neighbors can take shelter in the event of a violent tornado.

They bought them for peace of mind.

They’ll sell them back to the Army Corps of Engineers when the high school is complete and the students transfer out of the mall location.

Joplin Schools wanted their kids to feel safe while they took the time to apply for the FEMA grants and while the city passed a bond issue to pay for massive district re-construction.

“I think my advice to Moore, Oklahoma, and those other folks around the country is support your kids,” Huff said. “Support your schools. Get as safe of a place as possible. They’re certainly worth it.”  

The district has about $209 million in re-construction going on right now.

They are paying for the re-construction with a combination of insurance coverage, state emergency funding, donations and federal funding.

The district needed an additional $62 million to finish the projects, which they got through a bond issue. Joplin safer schools construction

However, according to Superintendent Dr. CJ Huff, the bond issue was a tough sell in conservative southwestern Missouri.

State statute in Missouri, and Oklahoma, requires a super-majority when it comes to funding school districts.

The Joplin bond issue passed by 43 votes.

In the Oklahoma City metro area, some districts have taken advantage of FEMA grant funding, while other districts have used bond issue funds to build safe rooms in some schools.

Oklahoma City Public Schools

There are five safe rooms in Oklahoma City Public School district’s 76 school sites: Grant High School, John Marshall High School, Douglass High School, Martin Luther King Elementary School, Wheeler Elementary School.

The district also has five schools with underground areas for students and staff: Capitol Hill High School, Heronville Elementary School, Bodine Elementary School, Martin Luther King Elementary School, Eugene Field Elementary School.

Putnam City Schools

There are zero FEMA-rated safe rooms in Putnam City’s 27 schools.

Mid-Del Schools

There is one safe room in Mid-Del’s 25 schools. It’s located at Del City Elementary. The district is currently constructing two safe rooms in the following schools: Soldier Creek Elementary (to open school year 2014-15), Midwest City Elementary (to open school year 2014-15).

Edmond Public Schools

There are eight safe rooms in Edmond’s 26 schools: Cross Timbers Elementary, Washington Irving Elementary, West Field Elementary, Angie Debo Elementary, Frontier Elementary, Centennial Elementary, Cheyenne Middle School, Santa Fe High School.

Moore Public Schools

There are two FEMA approved safe hallways in Moore’s 32 schools: Kelley Elementary School (rebuilt in 1999), West Moore High School (addition added in 2000).

Norman Public Schools

There are tornado shelter areas in eight of Norman’s 24 school sites: Alcott Middle School (basement shelter for school capacity), Cleveland Elementary (basement shelter for school capacity), Roosevelt Elementary (safe room hallway), Truman Elementary (3 safe rooms), Truman Primary (FEMA-rated gym safe room), Reagan Elementary (6 safe rooms), Washington Elementary (3 safe rooms), Whittier Middle School (multipurpose safe room).

Deer Creek Schools

There are five safe rooms in Deer Creek’s eight schools: Rose Union Elementary, Grove Valley Elementary, Spring Creek Elementary, Deer Creek Intermediate, Deer Creek Middle School.