The Joplin Missouri school system has rebuilt most of its gyms as safe rooms This rendering shows the Irving Elementary School gym before it was built The bright colors and recreational equipment in the gym help to keep students calm Rendering courtesy of Sapp Design Associates Architects.

The Joplin, Missouri, school system has rebuilt most of its gyms as safe rooms. This rendering shows the Irving Elementary School gym before it was built. The bright colors and recreational equipment in the gym help to keep students calm.

Wind sprints

How school gyms are being transformed into tornado refuges.

Storm-weary school administrators are utilizing their gymnasiums as a way to protect large numbers of students, staff and nearby residents.

Among these is the school system in Joplin, Mo., a community hit hard three years ago when a powerful EF5 tornado destroyed or badly damaged 10 of the district’s buildings and caused more than $100 million in damage. The storm struck after school hours on May 22, 2011, which helped avoid a greater tragedy since none of Joplin’s schools were equipped with safe rooms.

“In our schools that were destroyed, it became obvious to everybody, had that event happened during school hours – it would have been a bad thing,” says Mike Johnson, Joplin’s construction director. “The places that we thought were the safer places to go weren’t at all.”

School surveillance footage shows the intensity of the tornado and how the violent winds sucked objects through the hallways – the exact area where students would have been seeking refuge – and out the doors.

“It would have been like projectile alley. It would have been maybe the worst place,” Johnson said. “So we were really motivated, knowing what we knew, to find safe places for our kids.”

Joplin took advantage of FEMA grants to build 14 large safe rooms that are also available for the public (this is in addition to non-public safe rooms located throughout the schools). Twelve of these safe rooms double as school gyms. But it wasn’t that long ago when it seemed impractical to use a school gym as a sanctuary from storms.

“It used to be that gyms weren’t really a place of refuge that architects and engineers would really focus in on because to make the lateral forces to stand up for 250-mile-an-hour wind shear is quite expensive,” says Jim French, senior principal and K-12 education leader for the DLR Group. The DLR Group and CGA Architects designed the new Joplin High School, which will be finished this fall.

“But I think over a few years there’s been some new technologies that have been developed and I think people are becoming a lot more comfortable with the things we can do structurally with gymnasiums to make them safe.”

Windows, however, are scarce in Joplin’s safe-room gyms. Irving Elementary School has several small windows, but the rest of the rooms were given a window with a purpose – so occupants can differentiate between the sound of debris hitting the door and someone trying to gain entry.

What the gyms lack in natural lighting, the district tried to make up in décor. Bright colors were used to create a cheerful environment, and the recreational equipment in the gym helps district students in a highstress situation. Already, students have used the safe rooms three times this spring.

Districts like Joplin are part of a growing number of schools that are including safe rooms in their building plans, a response to the destructive, and deadly, tornadoes that have ripped apart communities and schools in the last few years. That concern intensified last year after an EF5 tornado devastated several schools in Oklahoma, killing seven students and injuring 24 others.

“Obviously in the Midwest tornado shelters have become a much, much more significant emphasis of school design,” says French. “There’s not too many of our clients today who don’t want tornado shelters built into their schools, whereas five years ago it was a piece of conversation but probably not as serious.”

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