It has been nearly one month since an EF5 tornado tore through Moore, Okla., killing 24 people, including seven children at an elementary school.
Approximately 15 months before, during the middle of the night Feb. 29, 2012, an EF2 weaved through western Stone County, Branson and then Kirbyville, damaging and destroying homes and businesses but sparing lives.
While many local school officials hope the Tri-Lakes Area never experiences a tornado of that magnitude, some find comfort knowing soon they’ll have facilities in place to keep their students safe.
Taney County’s first safe room opened to students earlier this month at Hollister Early Childhood Center.
“It gives you a sense of peace and a sense of security that we have that in place, but praying we don’t ever have to use it,” said Hollister Superintendent Tim Taylor.
The safe room at the early childhood center will serve students at that building, as well as the adjacent elementary. The building is constructed of precast, stressed concrete approximately 12 inches thick and able to withstand an EF5 tornado.
A second safe room in Hollister is under construction between the high school and middle school. It is expected to be completed by early September.
The Hollister safe rooms are made possible through a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, which is paying 75 percent of the cost of the safe room. The district is responsible for the rest, as well as any additional costs to make the space multifunctional. Part of the grant application required the district to build the safe rooms so that they can be quickly assessed by all students, as well close to local residents.
“In less than five minutes, all the kids and employees will be in the safe room,” Taylor said.
Without the tornado-safe facilities, Taylor said, they’d do what they’ve done for years.
“Without it, it would be the traditional duck and cover that has been used for years and years,” he said. “When you have the power of a tornado, there is no guarantee.”
The safe room at the middle school will double as a gymnasium, with locker rooms and a weight room. At the early childhood center, the room doubles as a gym and cafeteria.
When a tornado warning is issued after school hours, an automated system will unlock the middle school facility so people in the immediate area can take cover. A district employee will also head to the school.
In April, Kirbyville voters approved a $1.65 million bond issue, paving the way for the district to not only tackle a long to-do list, but also construct safe rooms at both of its campuses. Superintendent Carless Osbourn said Thursday they were in the bid process.
“We definitely want the construction to start as soon as possible,” he said.
The goal is to two have the safe rooms completed by next spring.
Kirbyville’s safe rooms will not open after school hours, which was a requirement Hollister had to meet in order to receive FEMA funds. Osbourn said it looked like it could be 10 years or more before more FEMA funds would have been available, and he said Kirbyville’s schools are so rural that very few people live close to the schools, compared to Hollister, where hundreds of people reside within a mile radius.
Osbourn said that doesn’t mean that if a storm came up, they’d turn people away if the school was open.
“We’ll provide a shelter for whoever we can, but we don’t want to encourage people to get out (during a dangerous storm) and then something drastic and devastating happen,” he said.
Forsyth also will soon construct a safe room large enough to accommodate the district’s entire students body and staff.
In April, Forsyth voters approved a $4 million bond issue, allowing the district to make multiple security upgrades, as well as construct a safe room, which will double as a performing arts center.
Other districts in Taney County, however, don’t have any plans in the near future to construct safe rooms.
“The way our buildings are built with a block structure and brick, ours are about as secure as you can build without building a safe room,” said Branson Assistant Superintendent Don Forrest.
He said the construction costs more than what the school district’s traditionally constructed buildings would, but Forrest said they do it because the buildings are much safer. He said it would be cost-prohibitive for Branson to construct safe rooms at each of its schools. He said the district also relies on local experts to help identify where the safest places in the school buildings are and directions to those locations are posted in each classroom.
“It is not a storm shelter, but the buildings are very safe,” Forrest said.
While Branson School District doesn’t have any plans to construct a safe room, it is something the city is considering.
“We certainly have interest,” said Garrett Anderson, director of economic development for Branson. “The grant (Hollister School District) did that through was a federal grant that paid 75 percent over all cost. That’s something we’re definitely going to look at this budget year. Late summer, early fall, we’ll start looking at budget costs for 2014. That’s really an important part of it.”
He explained the reason Hollister built where they did was based on the student body location.
“They have to estimate how fast students, once a tornado is alarmed, how fast they can get to the shelter,” Anderson said. “Location-wise in Branson, we have to pick location and size based on what population of people could get there (in a) few minutes.”
He said the city is eying the RecPlex as a possible location.
“Storm shelters would work where we think a large amount of people would be located already,” Anderson said. “For us, the location we’ve been looking at would be at the RecPlex. It’s got people outdoors at the pool or ball diamonds.”
This week, city of Branson representatives toured Hollister’s new safe room.
“We’re very impressed at what Hollister schools have put together,” he said.
As for where residents and visitors should go during a tornado warning, Anderson said he wasn't’ aware of any recommended locations.
“We would definitely recommend for families and neighbors here as part of planning to pre-identify where they’re going to go if there’s a tornado,” he said. “It’s definitely something that we encourage, to have a backup plan.”
In Stone County, Reeds Spring Superintendent Mike Mason said storm shelters are merely in discussion at this point.
“I don’t know if it’ll come into play,” he said.
He said there are a lot of factors to consider.
“For us, we have designated shelter areas we go to inside the school,” Mason said. “We (have) emergency management to look at proofs and say, ‘Yeah, these are the places you would use.’ Depending on the number of kids depends on the space you need. If we have a storm we go to the designated areas and stay as long as emergency management tells us we need to stay.”
After school hours, when a storm pops up, he said the schools don’t open up.
“We’re not a designated storm shelter,” he said. “We’re not really a community storm shelter at this point.”
He said with all of the recent tornados, Joplin’s in 2011, Branson’s in 2012 and now Oklahoma, safety in a storm is something many school leaders are looking at.
“It's a hot topic, unfortunately, for a good/bad reason,” he said. “There’s no sure answer, that’s part of the problem. Do you prepare for Joplin or just prepare for regular storms.
“That’s your worst nightmare, I’ve thought about what would have happened in Joplin if all those kids would’ve been in school. You’d be talking about a worse situation than they had.”