Wichita school tornado shelters open to public during school hours

Storm shelters in Wichita schools that have been reinforced to withstand major tornadoes are accessible to the public during severe weather as long as the buildings are open, district officials said.

Just note: You'd have to hurry to get inside before doors are locked and stragglers are directed to secondary shelters.

"The majority (of school safe rooms) can accommodate additional individuals" when the buildings are open, said Martin Libhart, chief operations officer for the Wichita district.

Forty-four Wichita school buildings have Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved storm shelters. The rooms, which may be libraries, gymnasiums, multipurpose rooms or fine-arts suites, are reinforced with 10 to 12 inches of concrete and strong enough to withstand winds of an EF-5 tornado and the accompanying debris.

When a severe weather warning is issued, school officials quickly usher anyone in the building into the safe room. Once students and staff members are accounted for, the doors are locked "to maintain the safety and integrity of the structure," said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

Schools seldom have people outside the school seek shelter in their buildings during storms, said Libhart. One day a few years ago sirens blared around 4 p.m., just as parents were picking up elementary school children, and officials directed everyone to designated safe areas.

"We initially thought we would get neighbors, anybody nearby who maybe didn't have a basement," Libhart said. "That hasn't really happened."

Schools that don't yet have FEMA-approved storm shelters — about half the district's buildings — direct students to interior rooms and hallways, Libhart said.

Parents, neighbors, passing motorists or others who get to a school seeking shelter after a FEMA safe room is locked — or at a school that doesn't have a FEMA shelter — also would be directed to those areas, he said.

The following Wichita schools have FEMA-approved storm shelters: Adams, Allen, Buckner, Cessna, Clark, Cleaveland, Cloud, Dodge, Earhart, Emerson, Enterprise, Franklin, Griffith, Harry Street, Hyde, Jackson, Jefferson, Kelly, Kensler, L'Ouverture, Linwood, McCollom, OK, Park, Payne, Price-Harris, Riverside, Seltzer, Washington, White, Woodland, Woodman, Gordon Parks, Horace Mann, Gateway Alternative, Metro-Boulevard, Metro-Meridian, Sowers Alternative, Chisholm Life Skills Center, Dunbar Learning Center, Greiffenstein Alternative, Levy, Little and Wells Alternative.

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