Preparing for Disaster

With concerns rising about student violence, terrorist attacks and campus crime in general, schools and universities have been devoting more resources to bolstering security so they can protect people and property from those threats. But educational facilities face other threats that can be more dangerous and devastating.

Long before the violence and crime found in society at large became a routine occurrence at schools from coast to coast, educational facilities have been vulnerable to the unrelenting power of Mother Nature — the fierce winds of a tornado or hurricane, the destructive rumbling of an earthquake, the deluge of water that can flood a facility from torrential rains, or the spark from a lightning strike that can send flames searing through a schoolhouse.

Those natural disasters still can strike and deal a damaging blow to a school building and its community, but through diligent planning and more effective facility design, schools can minimize property damage and save lives.

Dodging disaster

Officials in the Whiteside (Ill.) school district were awaiting completion of their new middle school in Shiloh, Ill., two years ago when a tornado ripped up the eighth-grade wing of the school and caused about $1.2 million in damage.

The district was spared more extensive damage because the school was not finished.

“There was nothing in the rooms yet, so we did not have things flying around,” says superintendent Peggy Burke. “It would have been a whole different story had it been occupied. If you're going to get hit by one, that was about the best time for it to happen.”

Still, officials had to scramble through the summer to repair the damage and rebuild the wing so it would be ready for students in August 2002.

“It wasn't finished until right before school started,” says Burke, who was principal of the middle school when the new building opened.

Although the classrooms were ready for students, the gymnasium couldn't be used until the end of October 2002. “The heating/cooling unit was ripped off the roof of the gym and crashed to the ground,” says Burke. “It was a mangled mess of metal. The floor hadn't been installed, but the wood was already there, and it had to be replaced. We made do. We used outdoor spaces for physical education.”

Storm watch

From the perspective of Roger Edwards, schools could do a better job educating their students and staffs about the threat of tornadoes and preparing plans to save lives and lessen storm damage.

“Many schools are hampered by some blend of lack of safety resources, complacency, and lack of awareness of a threat,” says Edwards, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. “This is where emergency managers, National Weather Service warning-coordination meteorologists, and school officials can and should coordinate.”

Edwards has written a guide, “Tornado Preparedness Tips for School Administrators,” to provide some of that awareness. He notes that many schools use “a cookbook-style ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach” to tornado preparedness.

“The most important part of tornado safety in schools … is to develop a good tornado safety plan tailored to your building design and ability to move people,” says Edwards. “School administrators will have to evaluate the time, space and coordination needed to direct all the kids and staff down into safe areas. This will require a customized drill that will vary from building to building.”

As a general rule, those taking shelter need to stay away from windows.

“In tornado and extreme thunderstorm wind situations, there should be as many sturdy, windowless walls between people and outdoors as possible,” says Edwards. “Every safety-minded design needs to be based on that single concept.”

Here are other critical elements of a tornado safety plan:

  • Go low

    Shaken up

    In general, the lowest possible level of a building is the safest in a tornado. But in some schools, there may not be enough time to direct all occupants of the upper floors into safe areas, or enough space on the lowest floors to accommodate everybody.

  • Act quickly

    “If it takes more than two or three minutes to move all upper-floor people down, things get really risky,” says Edwards. Even though more precise weather forecasting has provided greater lead time in general for storm warnings, some tornadoes still strike with no lead time, or just a minute or two.

  • Avoid debris

    “The most important factor is to minimize flying debris inside the building,” says Edwards. “This isn't realistic in most classrooms, especially given the importance of natural light and windows. However, there should be designated storm shelter areas set aside during the design process (for new buildings) and during the refurbishment process (for retrofitting) — preferably safe rooms, or alternatively, small interior rooms and hallways. The key is to avoid windows, which contribute their own broken glass to the flying debris streaming in from the outside.”

  • Determine building strength

    “What interior parts can stay intact during total structural loads created by 150-to-200-mph winds?” asks Edwards. “Is any place on an upper floor safe enough in such structural stresses? To best answer that, consult a professional architectural engineer, preferably one who has wind engineering experience.”

  • Evacuate portable classrooms

    “Any sound tornado safety plan must include getting students out of portable classrooms and into a safe area in the main building as quickly as possible,” says Edwards. “While the seconds spent outside will pose considerable risk, the danger inside the trailer is just as great.” Edwards even suggests that schools evacuate students from portable classrooms when a storm watch is issued, before an actual warning is issued.

Experience teaches

Ten years ago, an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale struck Southern California. The epicenter was 1.5 miles from the campus of California State University, Northridge. All 107 buildings on the 353-acre campus were damaged; some had to be demolished. The earthquake struck on a holiday weekend, and only one student sustained significant injuries on campus (two students were killed when an apartment complex off campus collapsed.

Classes resumed on campus just four weeks later, but not in any of the structurally suspect buildings. Temporary Mylar domes and more than 300 portable classrooms, some brought from as far away as Colorado, were put into service to provide space for students and staff.

After eight years of construction and $407 million, the campus was rebuilt. More than a half-million square feet of space had to be demolished, including the east and west wings of the Oviatt Library, the Fine Arts Building, the South Library/Computing Center, a parking structure, and the University Tower Apartments.

The new facilities included the rebuilt and modernized wings of the Oviatt Library; a renovated Student Services Building; an Arts, Media, and Communication building that replaced the former Fine Arts Building; an expanded Art and Design Center that includes a new art gallery; a combined home for the College of Health and Human Development and Information Technology Resources; and a rebuilt administration building.

“Thanks to nearly $370 million in federal public assistance funds, additional aid from the state government and Cal State system, well over two million contractor hours and counting, and most of all the unflagging spirit of the people in our university community, we have reason to be proud,” says university president Jolene Koester. “Distinctive, brilliantly designed buildings grace every section of our campus.”

Following that 1994 disaster, the California governor's Office of Emergency Services put together, “Earthquake Preparedness 101: Guidelines for Colleges and Universities” so administrators throughout the state would have a plan in place to anticipate another earthquake.

“Commitment from high-level administrators makes more resources available, adds credibility to the planning and preparedness program, and contributes to coordination throughout the campus and across campuses,” the guide states. Among the recommendations:

Survival pack

  • Identify buildings vulnerable to structural damage or collapse in an earthquake. “A structural engineer with expertise in seismic vulnerability must assess the buildings,” says the guide.

  • Assess campus utilities. “For all utilities, find the vulnerable area where damage to a single point will knock out an entire system,” the report recommends.

  • Schools as shelter

    Identify nonstructural building contents that pose safety hazards — hazardous lab materials that could be released, or suspended ceilings, light fixtures, furniture and equipment that could be thrown to the floor.

To diminish the chances of death, injury and severe building damage, schools and universities should try to strengthen the buildings on their campuses to withstand shaking from earthquakes.

The report notes that the University of Southern California had strengthened many of its buildings before the Northridge earthquake. “The buildings that had been completed came through very well, while Royce Hall, the next building to be retrofitted, nearly fell down.”

The guide emphasizes that the purpose of most seismic reinforcement projects is to prevent the collapse of the building in an earthquake, not to prevent major damage or ensure its continued habitability.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

If a disaster strikes a school, staff and students need to have access to materials that will help them treat injuries, lead themselves to safety, communicate with rescue workers or cope with other difficulties that confront them.

The American Red Cross has compiled a checklist of materials that schools should have on hand in case of an emergency:

  • Classroom kit: Work gloves (leather); latex gloves (six pairs); safety goggles (one pair); small first aid kit; pressure dressings (three); crow bar; space blankets (three); tarp or ground cover; student accounting forms (blank); student emergency cards; buddy classroom list; pens, paper; whistle; student activities; duct tape (two rolls for sealing doors & windows); scissors; suitable container for supplies (5-gallon bucket or backpack); drinking water and cups, stored separately; toilet supplies (large bucket, used as container for supplies and toilet when needed, with 100 plastic bags, toilet paper and handwashing supplies); portable radio, batteries or other communication system; flashlight and batteries; and push broom (if classroom includes wheel chairs).

    Supplies for the whole school:

  • Water: ½ gallon per person per day times three days, with small paper cups.

  • First aid: 4-by-4-inch compress (1,000 per 500 students); 8-by-10-inch compress (150 per 500 students); 2-inch elastic bandage (12 per campus) 4-inch elastic bandage (12 per campus); triangular bandage (24 per campus); cardboard splints (each, small, medium and large); butterfly bandages (50 per campus); water in small sealed containers (100 for flushing wounds, etc.); hydrogen peroxide (10 pints per campus); bleach (one small bottle); plastic basket or wire basket stretchers or backboards (1.5 per 100 students); paramedic scissors (four per campus); tweezers (three assorted per campus); triage tags (50 per 500 students); latex gloves (100 per 500 students); oval eye patch (50 per campus); tapes (1-inch cloth, 50 rolls per campus; 2-inch cloth, 24 per campus); dust masks (25 per 100 students); disposable blanket (10 per 100 students); first-aid books (2 standard and 2 advanced per campus); space blankets (1 per student and staff); and heavy-duty rubber gloves (four pair).

  • Sanitation Supplies (if not supplied in the classroom kits): one toilet kit per 100 students and staff, to include one portable toilet, privacy shelter, 20 rolls toilet paper, 300 wet wipes, 300 plastic bags with ties and 10 large plastic trash bags; soap and water, in addition to the wet wipes, are strongly advised.

  • Tools per campus: three rolls of barrier tape, 3-by-1,000 inches; pry bar, pick ax, sledge hammer, shovel, pliers, bolt cutters, hammer, screwdrivers, utility knife, broom utility shutoff wrench (one per utility).

  • Other supplies: 3-by-6-foot folding tables (three to four); chairs (12 to 16); identification vests for staff, preferably color-coded per school plan; clipboards with emergency job descriptions; office supplies (pens, paper, etc.); signs for student request and release; alphabetical dividers for request gate; copies of all necessary forms; and cable to connect car battery for emergency power.

  • Food: The bulk of stored food should be easy to serve, non-perishable and not need refrigeration or heating after opening. Food generally is considered a low-priority item, except for those with diabetes and certain other specific medical conditions.

In many cases, schools must serve as emergency shelters not only for the students and staff, but also for the community at large. That places an extra responsibility on school administrators to make sure their shelters are properly designed to protect people.

In Florida, the state is relying on school districts to provide adequate hurricane shelters in their new school facilities. The Florida Department of Community Affairs' 2004 Statewide Emergency Shelter Plan states that since 1999, public school construction programs have created an additional 209,654 hurricane shelter spaces that meet design guidelines as an “Enhanced Hurricane Protection Area.” The plan notes that including appropriate hurricane shelters in schools typically adds 2 to 6 percent to the construction cost of a school.

All told, about 93 percent of Florida's public emergency shelters are in public schools, the department says. Community colleges and public universities each account for another 1 percent of the state's shelters. “Therefore, it is critical that new school facilities be appropriately designed and located to serve the required emergency function,” the plan states.

The department says that with the assistance of school districts, Florida has reduced its hurricane shelter deficit by 50 percent, and in the South Florida region that includes Miami-Dade and Broward counties (the state's two largest school districts), the state reports a surplus of shelter space “for the first time in recent history.”

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