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Schools design for disasters

Districts protect students and sustain instruction with stronger buildings and resilient services
  • After a 2011 tornado killed students and a staff member at Joplin Public Schools, then-Superintendent C.J. Huff brought in 75 concrete bunkers from FEMA to serve as shelters and a safe place during dangerous storms.
  • After a devastating tornado hit Oklahoma 17 years ago, new school buildings in the Newcastle Public School District have safe rooms that double as classrooms.

The fault line running along the Cascade Mountains from British Columbia to northern California is long overdue for an earthquake many scientists believe is all but inevitable.

Engineering studies have shown that if a major quake does strike, it could take weeks to repair utilities, six months or more to restore water and years to rebuild some roads, says Richard L. Steinbrugge, executive facilities administrator at Oregon’s Beaverton School District, which has 51 buildings.

Oregon’s school building code for earthquake resilience dictates that if a building is shaken by an earthquake, it shouldn’t collapse and people should be able to evacuate—but repairing the structure may not be economically feasible, Steinbrugge says. “We thought that wasn’t good enough,” he adds.

Beaverton is investing $288 million of a $680 million bond in three new schools and rebuilding four others that meet Oregon’s Risk Category IV, the highest possible standard for resilience. It adds about 1 percent to the buildings’ costs, but protects taxpayers’ investment and makes schools available as emergency shelters, Steinbrugge says.

Across the country, school preparation for hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other disasters also includes safeguarding technology and payroll services, conducting safety drills and coordinating with local emergency services.

Since disasters affect both internet and phone connectivity, putting IT services in the cloud and backing up data at multiple off-site locations can get operations back up and running more quickly, and can preserve data such as cell phone contacts for parents and staff, say Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, and Jim Flanagan, chief learning services officer for ISTE.

“It is your people, not your technology, which will ultimately ensure that your plan works,” Krueger says. “It’s hard to think of some part of the country that doesn’t include disasters, and when you think about terrorism, too, everybody needs to get serious about disaster recovery.”

Which codes to follow?

Designing new buildings or retrofitting existing ones to meet standards is an especially complex challenge for school leaders. No single set of rules exists for buildings in every region, says Leslie Chapman-Henderson, CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes Inc., or FLASH, a nonprofit that advocates for consumer safety during and after disasters.

“It is solely the judgment of state, county, city officials as to what they do with those codes,” she says.

But building to a more modern code makes a district eligible for more federal assistance, Chapman-Henderson says.

Every three years, the nonprofit International Code Council releases comprehensive model construction codes. Last year the council recommended that school buildings in the highest-risk tornado-prone regions have safe rooms able to withstand 250-mph winds. The council also provides structural load-bearing thresholds to keep buildings standing during earthquakes.

And in early 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will introduce new safety guidance for schools facing hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and floods, says Michael Mahoney, senior geophysicist at FEMA’s Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration.

The guidance—which replaces three outdated school safety documents—will focus on what to do before, during and after a calamity, Mahoney says.

The new “Guide to Improving School Natural Hazard Safety” will recommend, for instance, ways to cope with unreinforced masonry school buildings, which can collapse in earthquakes, he says.

Safe rooms and spaces

While no national data exists on the number of student deaths from natural disasters, educators and experts cite recent tragedies—such as the tornado that killed 24, including seven students, in Moore, Oklahoma in May 2013—as a reason to over prepare.

Thanks to a hazard mitigation grant from FEMA, the tiny Pringle-Morse Consolidated ISD in North Texas spent five years building its $526,000 safe room for its lone school building, says district business manager Paige Speck.

Designed to withstand 250-mph winds, the above-ground, handicapped-accessible 2,600-square-foot safe room has walls more than a foot thick, Speck says. It can accommodate people in a way the school’s “claustrophobic” basement with steep stairs could not.

The room can now hold 327 people, including students, staff and community members. Even with $301,000 in FEMA funding, the expense and paperwork to justify it can be daunting, she says.

The decision to build safe rooms varies, depending on a district’s experience with tornadoes. In the Chicago suburbs, Western Springs District 101 favors “safe spaces” at its four schools, for protection during its average of two tornadoes per year. The district spent $2.5 million reinforcing walls and ceilings—whereas safe rooms would have cost 25 percent more, Superintendent Brian Barnhart says.

In 2014, the district reinforced corridors at one elementary school and strengthened the walls of a computer lab and library at another. So far, the spaces have been only used for drills, Barnhart says.

That same year, a basement was made safe for emergencies when a third elementary school was expanded.

Some districts in dangerous zones like Tornado Alley learned long ago how important safe rooms can be. After a tornado in May 1999 devastated thousands of homes and killed more than 40 people in the Oklahoma City region, Newcastle Public Schools made safe rooms a priority, says Superintendent Tony O’Brien. All of the newest school buildings have safe rooms—high school, middle and elementary school buildings, plus at an early childhood learning center, he says.

All but one double as classrooms and are located inside the buildings. They are windowless “concrete boxes” with walls about an inch thick, a concrete slab above a suspended ceiling, and protective metal doors, with pins that pop into place when the doors lock down for storm readiness. All safe rooms are rated for an EF5 tornado with 250-mph winds, he says. And they are wired for technology and used for classes.

Strengthening the system, staff

When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, Long Beach Public Schools in New York already had off-site backup for its on-site data center, says Superintendent David Weiss. More than 1,000 full- and part-time employees were able to get paychecks in the wake of the storm, while district leaders had access to data and software, he adds. But staff had to retrieve an electronic signature stick for signing checks from a flooded administrative office. (Those sticks have since been replaced by passwords, he says.)

Districts should also have “continuity of operations” plans that ensure business and teaching can resume as soon as possible after a disaster, says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety consultant organization.

“Not even 10 percent of school districts we assess have a continuity of operations plan, and when they do it’s usually focused on IT,” Dorn says.

FEMA helps state and local governments develop such plans, which can also cover evacuation procedures, setting up warning systems and maintaining communications. “We were out of school just about a week, but only half our buildings were operational, so we doubled up” with students in fewer school buildings, says Weiss of Long Beach schools.

Though much of the district was back to normal by January 2013, Weiss still sent students and staff to an elementary school for the rest of the year as other buildings were being repaired. As classes resumed, the district provided breakfast for students “on a mass scale” since families were displaced from their homes by hurricane damage and flooding, he adds. Some districts also develop policies for reuniting parents with students in a storm’s aftermath or permitting parents to fetch children from a shelter when a storm is forecast and on the way.

O’Brien, in Newcastle, Oklahoma, prohibits parents from picking up students if a tornado is imminent, citing the “chaos” that has ensued in the past when dozens of people showed up before a storm was about to hit.

Drills also have evolved from simply leading students and staff through pre-set steps. Today’s training includes scenarios in which participants must figure out how to respond, says Dorn of Safe Schools. “[This approach] can dramatically improve survivability,” he says.

In one scenario, a staff member is in the schoolyard, 25 feet from a door, when a tornado is visible 1,000 yards away. The staff member is left to react, and not told what to do.

“It is astounding the number of staff that cannot handle that,” Dorn says. “They often have students lie down; only one in 10 notifies the front office of the school that there’s a tornado, so the administrators may not shelter the building quickly enough.”

What they should be doing, Dorn says, is briskly moving the students back inside, notifying the office of a tornado so they can warn occupants in the rest of the building, and then take students to the nearest suitable shelter location.

Confronting PTSD

Districts also need to know how to handle fragile emotions of students, staff and the community after a disaster.

A tornado in 2011 killed seven students and a school staff member in Joplin Public Schools in Missouri. With 10 schools significantly damaged, then-superintendent C.J. Huff brought in 75 concrete FEMA bunkers to serve as shelters to house about a third of the 7,700 students and 1,000 staff to wait out future storm warnings and to use for drills. The modular bunkers helped ameliorate the trauma by ensuring that students and staff had a safe place to go in the storm’s aftermath, says Huff, now a consultant for a nonprofit agency.

After two months, the district had specialists come in to train staff to spot emotional trauma. Depending on students’ age, signs of PTSD could include argumentative behaviors, alcohol or drug abuse, or anger. Counseling services continued steadily for four years, and are still offered today, Huff says.

And Long Beach schools in New York had already established a relationship with a mental health services agency when they partnered to get a nearly $1 million grant to provide families with emergency therapy after Sandy, says Superintendent Weiss.

The grant also funded school murals, painted by students on poster board, which reflected the storm’s impact on the community and ways families helped each other to cope. The murals, and getting back to academics, helped teach students “resilience and cooperation—skills that are as important as the academic content,” he says. Ultimately, whether disaster preparedness involves building design, policies and procedures, or data protection, standards and solutions vary widely from state to state.

“You will see in a given state that a part of the state has a higher risk than the state overall, yet you’ll see building codes or requirements not as stringent as may be necessary,” says Dorn. “But in the U.S., even in the areas where they’re not as stringent, they’re still very good.”

Hurricane preparedness

The following tips will help districts restore normalcy and maintain public confidence (Source: Sheryl Abshire, CTO, Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana. She prepared and recovered from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005).

  • Protect payroll servers and services not in the cloud.
  • Make direct deposit for payroll mandatory.
  • Have in place a multistage shutdown procedure for every school and department.
  • Have reliable backup generators on hand for powering back up after the grid goes down.
  • Designate a core team to keep systems operating or to stay in place to restore them.
  • Keep the systems operations plan up to date.
  • Use your online learning system (like Blackboard) after an event to continue educating children ASAP.
  • lan for a crisis when you don’t have a crisis.

Patricia Daddona is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.