Wrenching Decisions as Tornado Flattens School

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Brett Deering / Getty Images

Downed utility poles block the road as a family walks south on Sante Fe Avenue at SW 19th Street on May 21, 2013 in Moore, Okla.

As soon as she heard the tornado siren start to wail on Monday, Tracy Stephen rushed to Plaza Towers Elementary School to pick up her 6-year-old daughter Abigail. But when she got there the doors were sealed, the school locked down as a tornado with winds over 200 m.p.h. (322 km/h) drew near.

Stymied, Stephen returned home and hustled her two younger daughters into a neighbor’s cellar, just minutes before the tornado flattened the family’s home on Sixth Street West in Moore. Emerging from the shelter, she could only pray that Abigail’s school had fared better. In fact, Plaza Towers had been reduced to rubble. Seven students were among the 24 killed in the disaster, according to officials.

Stephen was one of many parents who beat a path for the school as soon as the tornado cleared. “I was like a crazy person, running towards the wreckage,” she says. “Wailing.” A mother of a classmate told her that Abigail had been killed in the collapse – a horrific mistake, it turned out, one of many in the tornado’s chaotic aftermath. Abigail, who is autistic, was waiting at a nearby home after being saved by a teaching aide, who had thrown her body over the little girl and taken the brunt of the collapse (the aide was hospitalized but is expected to recover).

(PHOTOS: Tornado Flattens Suburb Outside Oklahoma City, Kills Dozens)

Concerned about his daughter’s safety, Patrick Smith picked her up from Plaza Towers early on Monday. After riding out the tornado in his bathtub, covered by a mattress, Smith, a first responder at Cimarron Energy, made his way back to the school to help. He found dozens of kids trapped under collapsed walls, stuck in the debris. As he and other responders lifted what had earlier been parts of a classroom, he said the kids remained on the ground, too afraid to look up.

Though Stephen and Smith are thankful for their children’s lives, they are among a number of Plaza Elementary parents wondering if even more could have been saved by canceling classes for tornadoes and requiring schools to have safe spaces that can withstand them.

“People keep talking about how we only had a 16-minute warning,” says Greg Terrell, 34, a mechanical engineer from Moore who has three children. “In all reality, we’d been talking about that day for a week – that day when you know the tornadoes are going to hit, you’re just not sure precisely where. They’ll cancel school for a snow day. Why can’t they cancel it for a threat like that?”

School superintendent Susie Pierce sent an e-mail at 1:11 p.m., before the tornado, alerting all principals and school administrators that after-school activities would be canceled, but they intended to let schools out as usual at 3 p.m. That news was passed down to the parents through phone trees and text messages. Some parents went right away to pick up their kids.

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“I got there within an hour,” says Angie Tennyson, who has two kids in the Moore school system. “And people look at you funny when you take these warnings that seriously. But I’m glad I did. We made it into the shelter with just minutes to spare.”

That said, Tennyson doesn’t think tornado warnings should trigger automatic snow days. “There’d be no school between February and August,” Tennyson says, laughing. “It’s a small place that a tornado actually hits, and the area of the warning zone is huge.”

The decision to lock down or allow children to leave — potentially walking out into dangerous weather — is a wrenching one, says Darry Stacy, Cleveland County commissioner. Moore is in Cleveland County, as is neighboring Norman. “Last year we had a similar dilemma in Norman where there was a lightning storm just as school was getting out. We had to ask ourselves: Is it safer to let children out into a potentially dangerous situation or keep them inside, where it may be safer?” Stacy says. “Ultimately, it was decided inside was safer.”

Despite being in the heart of Tornado Alley, Plaza Towers and nearby Briarwood Elementary do not have safe rooms in the event of a tornado — unlike some other area schools. “We should have had something,” says Smith. “Somewhere to go.”

(VIDEO: Family Emerges From Tornado Shelter to Witness Carnage)

Carrie Long spent much of Saturday salvaging clothing from the ruins of her home in Moore. The 40-year-old rental-car agent has two kids in the Moore school system: a 13-year-old at Highland West Middle School and a 14-year-old at South Moore High School. Long believes more safe rooms would be the best way to address the problem. “If I’d gotten my kids out and taken them home, they’d be dead,” Long says, her eyes welling up with tears as she clutched a garbage bag full of muddy clothes. “There’s just nothing left of our home.”

Before Monday’s tornado, there had also been a debate about whether schools should be used as shelters. “People think because it’s bigger, it’s safer,” says Kristy Yager, the public-information officer for the City of Oklahoma City. “Well, we learned today the hard way that just because it’s bigger, it’s by no means safer.”

Pierce choked back tears as she apologized for the loss of life at a press conference on Tuesday. “When our children are at school, they are in our care,” she said, reading from a statement. “Moore public schools, the City of Moore and the people of Moore have suffered a devastating disaster.” Pierce said Moore schools practice more tornado drills than required by law and that the students and teachers enacted the emergency plan put in place. Still, she said, “we are reviewing our emergency procedures today.”

Some disasters, however, will trump the best preparation. “No drill — no safe room, even — is going to help when the whole school falls down,” says Jeremy Lewis, the public-information officer for the Moore police.

— With reporting by James McGirk / Moore

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20 comments
kell490
kell490

I find it hard to believe it cost that much to dig a whole in the ground use the same way concrete pools are made with a steel roof that is strong enough to stop anything I bet less then a million each. One new F-35 fighter cost could fix the problem.

Jawa_the_Hutt
Jawa_the_Hutt

Having grew up, lived in, and worked in Moore I wanted to offer some insight to this discussion.  I'm not trying to offer excuses, but information.

I grew up in Moore and worked for Moore Public Schools from '03-'08.  All schools that have been newly built since the '99 tornado have the necessary safe rooms in them.  The main issue is one of funding, not the desire to build them.  The area that Moore Schools serves has been rapidly growing for the last 15 years and is adding anywhere from 750-1000 kids per year into the school system.  The average elementary school has 600-700 kids in it, so they are basically adding an elementary school worth of kids to the district every year.  Yes, that's spread across all age groups, but you get the idea.  They may not be building a school every year, but every 2-3 years an elementary or jr high or high school is needing to be built.  They shift students around as much as possible to keep classrooms sizes at or below the level set by state law but there is only so much that can be done.

With the growth they are seeing comes costs to the existing schools as well.  With the explosion of technology used in the classroom comes increased costs.  Once you have the technology you have to maintain it, upgrade it and replace it every 3-5 years.  To provide for the growth they have had in buildings and technology takes up a huge portion of the available tax revenue that is generated by sales of Bonds.  With the sales of those Bonds comes increased taxes to the property taxes on homes and businesses in the district. 

Moore now has I think 33 or so schools of which, I believe 6 have safe rooms:  2 rebuilt after the '99 tornado and 4 built brand new in the last 10 years.  With the average cost of a safe room or rooms per school to be in the $2.5 million plus range, that is a huge chunk of change to ask the public to fund at the remaining 27 school.  This would increase property taxes by a fair margin.  

Is it worth it compared to the risk? 

I'm not sure. 

We are all emotional over the devastation that we are seeing and we all have the desire to protect the lives of children, but where do we draw that line?

patlo
patlo

Those 7 innocent children  had to pay the ultimate price  for these schools to now take action and do something to better the next time.The loss of a child is painfully sad. The only thing that is sadder is knowing the loss could have been prevented. Hopefully all of us everywhere will think about this and do whatever it takes to do our best to protect children everywhere. My heart goes out to Oklahoma.

WallyWolf
WallyWolf

I just don't get it.  You are in the middle of tornado ally, you have a history of tornados hitting your region, and you don't provide proper shelter for children in school during a tornado?  It doesn't matter what kind of emergency procedures or warning whistles you have going on because if you don't have a strong, tornado-proof place for them, they are doomed. This way you wouldn'th have to worry about whether to keep them in school or release them into the weather.  You would simply keep them in the shelter until the danger passes.  Hello?!  Anyone home?

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

We don't have tornados or hurricanes in Israel, but we do have the occasional Kassam or Katyusha rocket coming from across the border, with a nasty tendency to target schools and kindergartens. The probability of being hit by one of those is far lower that being caught by a twister in the places where they are a normal natural event. But in Israel the building code insist on a concrete shelters in every home, public space and government building. These shelters are 3-5 times more durable than what's needed to survive a natural weather disaster. They are also 3 times more expensive, but we insist that preventable disaster should not happen, and place the responsibility with the government, so personal tendency to save on safety will not affect the innocents.

anglaisallemand
anglaisallemand

Though a lot of problems are ahead of us, such as immigrants, tax cuts, or whatever... None of them isn't solved without the lives of many, including children staying afraid of the massive tornadoes and the loss of their friend, family and themselves. What we need to do is install the shelters to all the schools that have any probability of being ripped through by tornadoes. Saving people from the tornado is not difficult with our technology, or even economically. No more victims.

EdwinNicholasGeng
EdwinNicholasGeng

Thunderstorms do not tear roofs off and level buildings. Tornados do. There's a difference people.

WallyWolf
WallyWolf

All those babies had to hold on to were walls made of drywall and not much else.  Oklahoma has had devastating tornadoes in the past and they will have more in the future.  This is why there is no excuse for the negligence displayed at Oklahoma schools.  The republican politicians in Texas and Oklahoma have the people so bamboozled they don’t know whether they are coming or going half the time.Why else would they vote for these clowns?The children should be our number one priority in this country, not tax cuts for the rich.  Whatever it costs to keep our children safe is worth every penny spent.A decision was made by these clowns to keep the status quo in Oklahoma and risk the lives of those poor deceased children.  So what are we going to do about it?

DavidGraf
DavidGraf

Jeremy Lewis is simply wrong.  You can easily find online shelters (both above and below ground) that can stand up to a F5 twister for a relatively inexpensive price.  I can understand why he wants to believe that there was nothing that could have been done to save the lives of those kids but that's not the case.  When you consider that Moore has been hit by four twisters in the last decade or so, it's inexcusable that the city's leaders didn't do anything to provide adequate shelters at schools.  Given that the warning provided plenty of time to get to a safe place, there was no reason why any of those kids should have died save for the incompetence of those running the city and schools.

catzeyes13
catzeyes13

There will never be a perfect procedure. Mankind is always humbled by Mother Nature. We can certainly do better, but miracles aren't part of our make up.

jairofgod
jairofgod

Terrible about this tornado as affect all members of this town, but after the storm comes the calm to recover and get ready for this cup so bitter move on with life and that God gave us this land

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Jay, thanks for report and personal details, kudos. You tend to do best work out in the field covering how big events touch individual's lives (like this, and Haiti, and Iran, etc.), so more of this, please. While an F5 twister by definition is supposed to destroy everything, we can build more safeguards into our buildings to minimize casualties - safe rooms, basements with concrete ceilings / ground level floors, reinforced walls, roof tie-downs / hurricane straps, etc. I hope YOU, Alex, Katy, and other teammates will investigate OK / Moore building codes to see how much wind-resistant construction is required. (TIME cover story, yes?) No doubt Moore residents who had safe rooms fared better than those who didn't. Jeremy Lewis in last paragraph is wrong - by definition, safe rooms are designed to protect students when the school falls down.

DavidGraf
DavidGraf

@EdwinNicholasGeng,

You are right that there is a difference but that's why twister shelters are built to withstand the damage.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@DavidGraf There's a related article on this site that explains the technical difficulties in building below-ground shelters in this part of the world.  At least Mr Lewis didn't talk about (or wasn't quoted as talking about) the expense involved, 

But I do agree with you that Lewis is wrong, as even above-ground shelters (AKA safe rooms) are built to withstand the worst that the local environment can throw at anyone.

DavidGraf
DavidGraf

@catzeyes13 

It doesn't take a miracle to install a shelter at a school that can stand up to a F5 twister.  It just requires common sense and the willingness to spend the money to protect the kids.  It doesn't even cost that much for pete's sake!

rpearlston
rpearlston

@jairofgod You're babbling here.  Please take your meds so that you can think and write clearly.

DavidGraf
DavidGraf

@deconstructiva ,

A F5 tornado is not by definition supposed to destroy everything in its path.  People have survived them like they did in Oklahoma if they had access to well-built shelters.  And, if you were willing to build a geodesic house, there's a good chance that a F5 twister wouldn't whack it either.  It's simply a matter of having the political will to spend the money to do something about this.  We ought to aid homeowners so that they can afford to have houses (or should we now call them "domes") which can survive twisters.  The technology to do this has been available for decades but not the will to do anything about it.

DavidGraf
DavidGraf

@rpearlston,

The governor of Oklahoma admitted today that money was the reason why those schools did not have adequate shelters.  But, they didn't have any problems with spending money on other things.  How sad.  Thanks for your comment.

krm1255
krm1255

@DavidGraf @catzeyes13 You hit the nail on the head.  "Willingness to spend the money" is the primary issue along with not understanding weather patterns and a false reliance on statistics.  Moore politicians felt that since they were hit in 1999 the probability was almost none that they'd be hit again.  Weather doesn't work like the lottery.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@DavidGraf @deconstructiva It's not only geodesic domes that would offer safety from tornado and hurricane winds.  Simply designing and building structures without right-angles (no parallelograms)  goes a long, long way towards that level of safety.  There are also a number of other construction techniques (straps, etc) that can be used to hold structures together successfully even in tornadoes and hurricanes.  It's in use along the Gulf Coast, so this is not someone's dream, but a practical and life-saving reality.

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