14 Severe Weather Survival Tips

Published: April 27, 2014

There is no worse feeling, professionally or personally, than knowing that nothing you do while an incident is occurring can alter its outcome. In 2002 — as I felt the pressure on my ears, heard the roar of the tornado, then the shriek of tearing metal as the ventilators were ripped off the roof — that was what I was feeling. The terrified screams of the students and staff as I turned the corner to see water cascading into the hallway and the lights flickering are something I will never forget.

That moment inspired my passion for school safety. While there is nothing you can do during the storm to alter the outcome, there is a lot you can do prior to it that can prevent injuries and fatalities. Educators have a professional responsibility to do what they can to make sure they never face the nightmare of visiting a student in the hospital or going to a student’s funeral.

Tornadoes are among the most violent type of storms in the world, with winds in excess of 200 mph. They can wreak incredible havoc on schools and communities, and can change lives forever. The string of deadly tornadoes in the spring of 2011, followed by this year’s deadly season have had the positive side effect of generating renewed interest in tornado procedures for schools.

Conceptual decisions in emergency management should normally be made after careful study, thought and (when possible) with consideration for research and evaluation. There are established best practices for dealing with tornadoes that have helped K-12 campuses and other organizations prevent many mass casualty events. Great care should be taken before changing these well-established and successful practices based on a single crisis or several individual events. For example, with the nearly endless array of school designs, there are still many schools where the odds of students and staff being injured and killed would rise dramatically if hallways were eliminated as shelter areas.

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This article is a refresher of current best practices for tornado sheltering for schools, as well as an explanation of why they have become best practices. It will also describe the process to change protocols so that such changes are made in a thoughtful and logical manner.

Nothing in this article should be construed as criticism of the administration of West Clark Schools for the decision to send students home before the storm, nor is this article intended to critique Joplin Schools for their decision to eliminate hallways as shelter areas. The bottom line is, no school children or staff members died, and that is a great blessing

This article is meant instead to serve as the basis for proper development of effective protocols based on research, and the development of a dynamic exercise program that will make you more comfortable in implementing those protocols.

1. Sending Students Home Poses Risks

The numerous reports and research from FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicate best practices rest on one of two actions: the creation of a safe room in school buildings, or the use of best available shelters within existing facilities. Sending students home ahead of storms can create numerous risks that may result in injury or deaths for which schools may be held liable. Of course, this is based on the specific facts in each incident, but school administrators should consider several things prior to making the decision to send students home:

  • How long will it take to get all students home? In urban areas, that may not take as long as in some rural or suburban areas.
  • Will parents be home when the children get there? This may be age-specific, as high school students are more capable of getting into their homes and finding a safe area than elementary students.
  • Will school personnel get home safely in time? Remember, having staff out in the storm returning students home can also make leaders responsible for their safety.
  • How often do severe storms hit your area? As part of an annual hazard and vulnerability assessment process, you should determine, with your local team, whether you are in an area that has frequent severe storms. If they happen frequently, sending children home becomes costly, ultimately frustrating and, as mentioned, could increase risk to students and staff.
  • Do you have a reverse 9-1-1 system or emergency notification system (ENS) to rapidly communicate your plans with parents and guardians? Parents at work will assume that their child is under the care of the school unless they receive word otherwise. Lack of communication may lead to panic if they hear the school was damaged, and they don’t know their child was sent home. I have experienced, first-hand, the frustration of this type of situation.

This list of questions and considerations is not an exhaustive one, but it should serve to demonstrate that sending students home ahead of a storm has potential pitfalls and issues. Having said that, a school district that properly utilizes the all-hazards approach to emergency planning may decide to send students home early and establish that as an option in their protocol. These types of emergencies are local, and the decision-making processes should also be local.  However, there is yet no research to validate this approach.

2. Consider Creating a Safe Room

FEMA 361 (Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms), Second Edition, outlines the criteria for the creation of a safe room in school buildings. FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance Program has been in existence since 1998. Since then, no safe room built to FEMA’s specifications has been reported as having failed. FEMA safe rooms also use the International Code Council standards ICC-500 in consensus with the National Storm Shelter Association. Such a safe room will provide nearly absolute protection from deadly winds and debris associated with violent tornadoes. (Story continues below.)

According to FEMA, a safe room is an interior room; a space inside a building, or a separate building that is designed and built to provide protection from extreme wind events and wind-borne debris. FEMA classifies safe rooms into two categories: residential and community. The scope of this article covers commercial safe rooms. These rooms are designed to protect a large number of people using criteria as set forth in FEMA 361 and ICC-500.

After the 2007 Enterprise, Ala., tornado that struck a local high school, NOAA clearly identified the value of safe rooms.

“The eight fatalities at the high school appear to have been due to structural failure of the roof and walls, which collapsed on the students,” the report claims. “Previous events have shown that hardened safe rooms provide better shelter from tornadoes than other permanent structures, especially during EF3 or greater tornadoes, and may be a critical component of adequate tornado safety plans, especially in mobile home parks, homes with standard grade construction, and non-residential buildings in which many people normally gather (schools, office buildings, etc.).”

Having such a shelter in your school would provide the best probability of survival in the
event of a tornado, but there are some obstacles to getting this done. The biggest obstacle is cost. Unless your school district has new construction, there is a major cost to retrofit your existing buildings to incorporate safe rooms. The Hazard Mitigation Assistance Program can help mitigate the costs, but that requires jumping through some pretty significant bureaucratic hoops. The tradeoff is great protection from violent tornadoes, but for many, the financial burden may be insurmountable.

3. Conduct a Vulnerability Assessment

One of the first steps in the designing of a community safe room or identifying a best available shelter area is to determine whether or not one is needed. This requires a vulnerability assessment geared toward extreme wind events. The first step of the vulnerability assessment is to determine the local threat of extreme wind events. The assessment of the threat level is based on the probability of an occurrence of an extreme wind event of a specific magnitude at a specific location.

For the purposes of this article, an extreme wind event is a tornado of EF3 or higher. The probability of occurrence is a statistical estimate drawn from historical records and is often presented as wind speed maps and frequency maps and tables. (See Tornado Activity in the United States on page 16.)

Once the threat level has been determined, your building must be assessed for potential vulnerabilities to wind damage. FEMA provides a checklist to assist in this assessment. This assessment should be done in two stages. The first stage is a general survey of your campus to identify those buildings, or parts of a building, that would be at greatest risk of serious damage or collapse during an extreme wind event. The second stage should be performed by a well qualified and experienced professional who can identify the interior areas of a school that can serve as the best possible refuge from extreme wind events.

The next step in a vulnerability assessment is the identification of population at risk. FEMA describes this population as “those people who are unable to evacuate ahead of a storm for any reason.” In a school, that would be everyone on campus. Identifying this population is necessary for doing a proper risk assessment as this determines potential losses as a result of storm damage. It is also necessary so you can make sure that everyone at risk has a place to go and can get there in a timely manner.

4. Conduct a Risk Analysis

After identifying the population at risk, it’s time to do a risk analysis, the final step of the vulnerability assessment. FEMA describes this step as, “The potential losses determined on the basis of the vulnerability of a building and its occupants to damage and resultant death and injury of an extreme wind event of a certain magnitude are compared with the probability of occurrence of such an event at that location.” (Story continues below.)

There are three general risk levels: low, medium and high. Once you have identified a moderate risk, a community safe room should be considered.

Having completed your vulnerability assessment, it’s time to plan. From here on out, this article assumes that a best available shelter area is being chosen over a safe room. If you are going to build a safe room, then FEMA 361 should be your guide.

5. Prepare Your ‘Best Available Shelter’

If you have identified an area as a best possible shelter, calculate the square footage of the area, and subtract out any unusable space, such as furniture, columns, equipment, partitions and anything that would interfere with someone using that part of the floor. This gives you the usable space in that area.

From that, you can calculate how many people can be safely sheltered there. You will need to know the maximum number of people in your building. Take this number and multiply by five. For each person in a wheel chair, multiply by 10. The resulting number is the square footage needed to shelter everyone.

For example, if your school has 560 students, 75 staff members and three students in wheelchairs, your equation would be:

(635 x 5) + (3 x 10) = 3,205 square feet of shelter space needed.

Keep in mind that people who are being sheltered will be sitting on the floor in the “duck and cover” position. As part of your planning, you should take into account that FEMA considers two hours as the maximum time of occupancy. After that amount of time, people can leave the shelter to head elsewhere, provided the storm has moved on and depending on any damage.

6. Avoid Buildings With Large Roof Spans

Roof span is an important consideration when placing a shelter area. This is the length of the beams that support the roof. Also important is the direction of the beams. The tremendous stresses created by a tornado can quickly overwhelm the ability of a roof beam to continue to support its share of the weight of the roof, and to help provide structural integrity for the walls.

The maximum roof span is 25 feet. Anything over that, and you will risk increasing the probability of roof and/or wall failure during an extreme-wind event. Long hallways are still viable, as usually roof beams are perpendicular to the hallway. That being said, it is best to check by taking a look at the blueprints for the school.

7. Carefully Assess Using Hallways as Shelters

The use of hallways during an extreme-wind event has been debated extensively, especially after the Joplin, Mo., and now the Henryville, Ind., tornadoes. Video footage shows wind-blown debris speeding through the hallways, creating great fears that students sheltering in those hallways could be injured or killed by the debris.

Hallways that open to the outside should be the last place used because the doors at the end will likely fail, and students would then be subjected to wind-borne debris. However, my review of the research has not shown a significant number of fatalities from wind-borne debris. The vast majority of fatalities in an extreme-wind event come from students being buried under collapsed walls and roofing material.

8. Follow the 2-Wall Rule

When selecting your best possible shelter area, make sure that there are a minimum of two walls between that area and the outside.

An exterior wall of a hallway at Henryville Elementary collapsed onto the floor. Had anyone been sheltering there, they would have been buried under brick, masonry, drywall and other construction materials.

A number of students took shelter in the windowless nurse’s office inside of Henryville High School. That office
was in the east side of an interior courtyard and was next door to the main office. Right outside of that office, the north wall of the courtyard collapsed into a computer classroom. That collapse occurred 15-20 feet from the nurse’s office. The hallway on the inside of that classroom remained structurally sound, although a bank of lockers was knocked off of its mounts from the force of the collapse.

9. Plan for Students With Special Needs

Students with special needs should be factored into your planning. Not only do you need more space for wheelchair-bound students, but remember that many students with special needs do not react well to change, and an extreme wind event will create major changes. Remember that the time to plan for their needs is before you need to meet those needs.

10. Equip Your Shelter Areas

You will need emergency equipment for your shelter areas. FEMA recommends one flashlight (with continuously charging batteries) per 10 occupants, as well as a first aid kit. They also recommend a NOAA weather radio (with batteries), and a radio (with batteries) that can pick up commercial stations. An extra supply of batteries is recommended, as well as a device that will create a piercing sound without a power source (Such as an air horn), to be used to signal rescue workers if you get trapped in the shelter. You should have a communications device other than a landline phone. After a tornado, cell phone coverage may be spotty, although SMS text messages will often work even if cell phone calls will not.

11. Work With Local Emergency Management

School administrators need to develop a professional relationship with their local emergency management agency director. This relationship will provide a means for the EMA director to send you warnings of severe weather. He/she can also serve as a resource for your vulnerability assessment. In Indiana, our local EMA director provided training that allowed us to access the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s WebEOC, an online resource for reporting and tracking incidents.

12. Formulate Campus Closure Policies

Develop a written policy that allows the school the capability to pre-emptively close ahead of severe weather warnings received from the EMA director. Spell out, in writing, under what conditions school may be released early. If one is not currently used, obtain and properly test a reverse 9-1-1 system or emergency notification system to instantly communicate with your patrons.

13. Keep an Eye on the Sky

If a tornado watch is issued, then conditions are right for the formation of tornadoes, and you should be in a heightened state of alert. Monitor weather radar to track storms, local TV stations and commercial radio; curtail outdoor activities, and have your staff locate their emergency kits and equipment so they can be grabbed at a moment’s notice. This would be a good time to review the locations of your best available shelter areas and the routes to get to them. Transportation staff should be notified and placed on alert. Keep an eye on the sky.

A tornado warning means that a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Take shelter immediately! Look for the danger signs in the sky: Dark, often greenish sky, large hail, a large, dark, low-lying cloud, especially if you notice rotation, and/or a loud roar, similar to a freight train. If you find yourself outside, get into a low-lying area or dry ditch and lie flat.

14. Assess Injuries and Damages

After the storm has passed, assess yourself for injuries, and then begin to assess others.  Watch out for fallen power lines. Listen to the radio for instructions. Power will most likely be out, so use your flashlights to help you assess the situation. Never use candles or mantle-lanterns as natural gas may be present, and the debris is likely to contain flammable materials.

Close Windows During a Tornado

A common myth claiming that open windows will equalize pressure and minimize damage needs to be dispelled. What this does is allow wind to enter the building, leading to over pressurization of the structure, causing more damage. Many of the windows used in the schools in Henryville were double-paned, laminated safety glass. There were numerous instances where the outer pan broke, but the inner pane held, helping to maintain the structural integrity of that part of the building.

Steve Satterly is the director of school safety and transportation at the CSC Southern Hancock County in East Central Indiana. He is a survivor of an EF3 tornado on September 20, 2002 and can be reached at satterly.steve@att.net. This article was edited by Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International.

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