OAK GROVE, Mo. — Growing up in the Midwest requires you to always be prepared for severe weather. That includes when you’re at school.
If you grew up in the Kansas City area, you remember conducting tornado drills at your school at least a couple times per year.
But what happens when that drill turns into reality?
Images of schools being torn apart by tornadoes are now somewhat common. Many people remember seeing the footage of an EF-5 tornado that tore through the elementary and middle schools in Joplin, Missouri in 2011.
One person, in particular, is Adam Salmon, the principal at Oak Grove High School.
“One of the things that sticks in my mind is seeing the video cameras there, from the school during that tornado, and seeing how it just threw furniture everywhere, debris everywhere,” said Salmon.
When the tornado struck Joplin, it was on a Sunday, and no one was at school.
That’s not always the case.
In 2013, an EF-5 tornado moved through two elementary schools in Moore, Oklahoma during the school day. Seven students died while taking shelter in hallways and closets.
That event spurred Salmon to make changes.
“The idea of keeping our students in the hallways during tornadoes in our regular building, we knew we needed to do something different,” said Salmon.
The result was constructing a FEMA-certified building or safe room that provides protection from tornadoes. The building has 18-inch cement walls and thick concrete doors that go over the window with the ability to withstand wind speeds of 250 mph — the wind speed an EF-5 tornado reaches.
The purpose of the safe room is to block out any potential dangers that may come with a tornado.
“One of the requirements for the FEMA grant is that we had to be able to get all of our students and faculty members into a central location within 5 minutes,” said Salmon.
The safe room opened in 2014. The staff at Oak Grove schools had numerous drills in order to get roughly 2,000 people within the school district assembled and ready to go in five minutes.
“We've sort of perfected that art, so if there is ever a call for inclement weather, we know that we can get it done if we need to,” said Salmon.
And they did. The safe room was used on the evening of March 6, 2017, when an EF-3 tornado moved through southern portions of the city.
A choir concert was just finishing up.
“If I hadn't known that there was a tornado going through town as I was at the door letting people in, I never would have known it,” said Salmon. “You could not hear the wind. You could not hear the rain, and you could not hear the sirens.”
Here are some of the items FEMA requires in all community safe rooms, including schools:
- Flashlights with continuously charging batteries
- Fire extinguishers
- First aid kits rated for the safe room occupancy
- NOAA weather radio with continuously charging batteries
- Radios with continuously charging batteries
- A supply of extra batteries to operate radios and flashlights
- A sounding device that continuously charges or operates without a power source (e.g., canned air horn) to signal rescue workers if safe room egress is blocked
- Tools to open inoperable or debris-blocked doors. A crowbar and sledgehammer should be kept in the safe room in case debris falls against the door and prevents exiting the safe room after an event.