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Rebuilding after natural disasters

Schools facing tornado risk building safe rooms
A tornado safe room under construction in Moore, Oklahoma.
A tornado safe room under construction in Moore, Oklahoma.

Tornadoes sweeping through parts of the nation and destroying schools are leading district leaders to create “safe rooms” for increased protection.

In May 2013, Moore, Okla., was hit by a tornado that destroyed two elementary schools and killed seven students. Moore Public Schools is rebuilding the schools with four safe rooms designed to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criteria to provide protection during tornadoes.

The safe rooms will have concrete walls, 10 inches thick and 16 feet tall, and no windows. Pre-K and kindergarten classes will be held in the safe rooms, so teachers don’t have to move the students. The older students will go to those classrooms during drills or emergencies, says Amy Simpson, principal of Plaza Towers Elementary.

FEMA will cover 80 percent of the costs, Simpson says of one of the two schools being rebuilt.

Joplin Public Schools in Missouri is building 14 safe rooms throughout the district after a deadly tornado destroyed three schools in May 2011. In January, three new schools opened to 1,300 students who had been attending classes at temporary facilities.

Funding came from a $62 million bond campaign, federal and state disaster funds, grants, donations and insurance. Even before the tornado, the district leadership team had planned to modernize its buildings and classrooms.

“When the tornado destroyed five schools, we chose to make the best of a terrible situation,” says Superintendent C.J. Huff.

The architects designed spaces around social spots for students and flexible rooms that can adapt to group work or online work, Huff says. The schools also feature natural light and colorful walls, making them inviting spaces in which to learn, he adds.