Damaged school buses sit next to Lake High School in Lake Township in Wood County, Ohio, Sunday, June 6, 2010, after it was destroyed by a tornado.
MILLBURY — The deadly tornado that swept through Moore, Okla., and flattened or severely damaged two elementary schools last week, hit especially close to home for the Lake Local School District.
On June 5, 2010, the local high school was destroyed when a tornado tore through the area, killing seven people. Lake High School classes were held elsewhere while a new building was designed and built. It opened last year with features to help protect it.
“We’ve got some reinforced walls. The deck is thicker than most buildings are. We’ve tried to take precautions to make it sturdier, especially in the middle. But we’ve also found out that nothing — nothing — is absolutely tornado-proof,” Lake Superintendent Jim Witt said.
But Lake leaders — as well as many other school officials across the area — remain confident that existing plans will help keep students and staff safe in the event of a tornado. Some other local school districts have chosen to re-evaluate their emergency preparedness as a result of the destruction of Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools in Oklahoma. Seven students were killed at Plaza Towers.
For students in the Perrysburg Public Schools, following state requirements for tornado drills is commonplace. Superintendent Tom Hosler said the district would move students to safer areas in the event of a tornado.
“We have areas that the fire department and first responders designated when the buildings were built. Obviously, if there is a basement, we would want to get the kids in it, but Toth [Elementary] is our only building with a basement; the rest were built flat,” he said.
Eric Hirzel, school board vice-president walks through the weight room during a tour of the new Lake High School on August 1, 2012.
The school system has five other schools besides Toth, including three other elementary schools, a junior high school, and a high school.
He said locations that do not have much glass and have “more structure” are preferable. Tornado safety information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said rooms such as lunchrooms, gymnasiums, auditoriums, and other rooms that have exterior walls should not be used during a tornado.
Mr. Hosler said the tragedy in Oklahoma made him think about the preparedness of the district.
“I think certainly anytime something like that happens, you hear about things that helped save lives and anything you can learn from that, you take,” he said, adding that he started thinking about whether every teacher had access to a flashlight.
Discussing emergency safety is something that the Sylvania schools district also takes seriously.
Nancy Crandell, spokesman for Sylvania schools, said the district is constantly reviewing its safety and emergency preparedness plans. She did not specify what the planning entailed, but she said plans are reviewed continuously.
The district also has a safety and security committee, which includes 25 people from the Sylvania Police Department, the Sylvania Township Fire Department, and area teachers and principals.
The group meets monthly to assess emergency planning and is proactive in reviewing tornado response, Ms. Crandell said.
Michael Froelich, deputy chief of the Sylvania Township Fire Department, said the department works with the Sylvania school system in addressing tornado safety planning.
“We have gone into a couple of the schools to go over the plans, beginning earlier in the year, so I would say the schools are proactive in doing this before there is a problem,” he said.
In the Lake district, the new high school was built with funds from an insurance settlement, the Ohio School Facilities Commission, and a $500,000 donation from the Kohl’s Cares contest. The facility, at State Rt. 795 and Lemoyne Road, also includes a concrete deck part of the roof that is less likely to be lifted off in the event of a tornado.
Mr. Witt said the district has not changed any emergency plans, in light of the recent Moore tornado, though.
One major difference is that the Oklahoma tornado occurred on a weekday when students were in the school buildings, while the Lake tornado occurred late on a Saturday night.
“We follow the guidelines of the Wood County crisis plan and recommendations from the state and we feel very comfortable with the plan,” he said.
Mr. Witt said plans about what students would do in the event of a storm are based on their assigned buildings.
“In our elementary and our middle school, they would go to a hallway on the first floor, and our high school, we have some safe spots that were designated,” he said. “It kind of varies by building.”
But at Lake High School, there is one area that seems to be better than others.
“The weight room is architecturally the safest spot that we have,” Mr. Witt said.
Confident that the school has plans in place that are designed to the best of their ability, Mr. Witt said he has no qualms about them.
“I mean, I think that those are always living documents and we talk about safety on a regular basis. We’re comfortable with our tornado safety plan,” he said.
Matthew Biddle, a storm chaser who has also worked as an emergency management director and who lives in Norman, Okla., said there are a few things schools can do to keep students safer. He lives about 7 miles from where the tornado struck on May 20.
A 1986 graduate of the University of Toledo with a bachelor’s degree in geography, Mr. Biddle moved to Oklahoma to learn more about tornadoes. He went on to pursue a doctorate at the University of Oklahoma and specializes in natural hazards, including studying severe weather and tornado risks.
“They need safe rooms or a basement,” he said. Many schools do not have basements, nor do they have the funding for safe rooms, Mr. Biddle said.
None of the newer schools in the Toledo Public Schools has a safe room or a basement, according to business manager James Gant. He said some of the older buildings have basements.
Mr. Gant said most of the newer schools in the district have been equipped with precast concrete in all corridors and bathrooms, which adds an element of structural stability. The district continues to review all of its safety plans.
Each school in the district conducts two tornado drills per year, and children and staff are taught to get away from glass and head to the precast areas, such as corridors and bathrooms, Mr. Gant said.
Staff writers Matt Thompson, Natalie Trusso Cafarello, and Nolan Rosenkrans contributed to this report.
Contact Kelly McLendon at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6522, or on Twitter @KMcBlade.
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