As another severe weather season begins, the Wichita school district plans to reach out to parents to inform them of severe weather and safe room procedures at schools.
Officials plan to use the district’s automated ParentLink system to share information with families and will make informational brochures available at schools. Weather procedures also are posted at www.weather.usd259.org.
“With more and more schools having completed storm shelters, we wanted parents to be aware of the procedures,” said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman. “For some, this may be new information, but for others it’s a reminder as we are in the middle of spring storm season.”
When a severe weather warning is issued at a Wichita school, officials quickly usher anyone in the building into the safe room. At schools that do not yet have Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved safe rooms, occupants go to a shelter area that has been designated by community safety officials.
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Once students and staff members are accounted for, storm shelter doors are locked to maintain the safety and integrity of the structure as noted in FEMA specifications. Parents will not be allowed to pick up their children until an all-clear has been given and the safe room doors are reopened. Parents are encouraged to not come to the school until after the storm has passed, Arensman said.
School storm shelters are accessible to the public during severe weather as long as the buildings are open. But once the doors are locked, signs on the safe room door will direct people to secondary shelter areas.
If a tornado warning is issued while students are on buses, drivers will be directed to take shelter at the nearest middle or high school in the morning or the nearest elementary school in the afternoon, Arensman said. Other, non-school locations may be used if necessary.
Wichita was the first public school district in the country to build a FEMA-approved storm shelter in a school. It partnered with the agency in 2000 after an early-morning tornado damaged Jefferson Elementary School in April 1999, destroying portable classrooms and parts of the main building.
The district now has 77 schools with safe rooms. Eight others should be completed this school year. Thirteen are in the planning, design or construction stages.
The rooms, which include gymnasiums, fine-arts suites, wrestling rooms and classroom additions, are designed to FEMA standards – reinforced with 10 to 12 inches of concrete, steel doors and “missile protection” roofs – and are strong enough to withstand an EF-5 tornado, flying debris and wind speeds of more than 200 miles an hour.
Safe rooms were a key component of a $370 million bond issue voters approved in 2008, which included $45 million for 60 shelters. Now FEMA cites Wichita as an example of how to design, build and lobby for school spaces that can double as storm shelters.
Related link: Wichita school district brochure (PDF)