Wichita school district a pioneer in FEMA-approved storm shelter safe rooms

When storm sirens blare in Wichita, most students file into rooms designed to withstand 250 mph winds that can turn flying debris into deadly missiles.

“I feel so much more safe and confident in my ability to manage and lead a crisis like that because of the safe rooms,” said Julie Bettis, principal at Harry Street Elementary in Wichita.

“I hope soon all schools have them, because it does make a difference.”

After the deadly tornado that leveled two elementary schools in Moore, Okla., Wichita school officials said they felt thankful for the safe rooms that have been already built as part of two bond issues and recommitted to completing storm-shelter projects at every school.

“It’s a horrible, horrible thing,” Lynn Rogers, president of the Wichita school board, said of the Moore schoolchildren’s deaths. “I hope we never have to use the safe rooms, but I’m very glad that we have them.”

Wichita was the first public school district in the country to build a Federal Emergency Management Agency-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.

Since then, the district has built 69 safe rooms. Eight others are under construction and should open next school year. Fourteen are in the planning or design stages.

The additional 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 winds of an EF-5 tornado and the accompanying debris.

Safe-room construction wasn’t part of the campaign for a $284.5 million bond issue in 2000 because the FEMA program wasn’t in place until after voters approved that bond issue. But the district took advantage of federal storm-safety grants to fortify new construction at 30 schools.

In 2008, safe rooms were a key component of a $370 million bond issue, 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.

“We don’t believe there has been another or similar large district … that has made this kind of commitment” in the region that includes Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, said FEMA spokeswoman Merideth Parrish.

Statewide since 2001, $67 million has been spent to build safe rooms in 29 counties, according to Sharon Watson, director of public affairs for the Adjutant General’s Office, which is in charge of emergencies statewide.

Of the 217 safe rooms that meet FEMA construction guidelines, about 190 are in schools, Watson said Tuesday in an e-mail response to questions from The Eagle. Sedgwick County leads the state in the overall number of requests for safe rooms and the number of safe rooms built.

About $40 million has been spent on safe rooms in Sedgwick County since 2001, Watson said.

Procedures in place

Bettis, who worked at Jefferson Elementary when it was hit in 1999, said several parents approached her at Harry Street Elementary on Tuesday to ask about storm procedures there. Scenes from the Oklahoma disaster were fresh in everyone’s minds, she said.

“Most of them were simply double-checking: ‘Now, your gym is a safe room, right?’ ” Bettis said. “And I was just reassuring them that, yes, it’s a safe room.”

During a weather emergency, teachers direct students to the shelter area. Once everyone is inside, staff members secure the steel doors and attach a magnet on the outside that reads, “Shelter is locked. Proceed to secondary shelter.”

Kathy Stybr, principal at Isely Traditional Magnet Elementary in northeast Wichita, said closing and locking that door can feel “incredibly awkward,” but it’s crucial to safety.

“You close that door because it compromises the integrity of the entire structure,” Stybr said. “If you open that door, you’re not really in a safe room any longer. You’re in a big room with a very tall ceiling that can be ripped off.”

At schools that don’t have storm shelters, students take cover in interior rooms, closets, bathrooms or locker rooms. School leaders work with officials from the Sedgwick County Emergency Management Department to identify the best areas in which to take shelter.

“We divide kids up and put them in interior closets and offices that have two or three walls between them and the outside,” said Jane Walker, principal at Bostic Elementary, one of more than a dozen Wichita schools still waiting for its FEMA safe room.

Julie Hedrick, director of facilities for the Wichita district, said FEMA funding for the district’s storm shelters has “dried up” recently. Planners are having to redirect savings from earlier bond projects or ones at schools that have closed to make up for a $13 million shortfall in federal funds.

“It’s hard to do it without the money,” Hedrick said. “But we have made a commitment to having a storm shelter at every school, and … the board feels very strongly about that.”

Learned from storms

On Tuesday, principals at some schools with safe rooms heard from parents worried that the above-ground rooms wouldn’t withstand a tornado like the one that ripped apart buildings in Moore. Some wondered whether it would be safer to retrieve students from schools and race back home to houses with basements.

Officials and engineers tried to quell those fears.

“The statements that shelters have to be underground is untrue,” said Ross Redford, a licensed professional engineer with Mid Kansas Engineering Consultants in Wichita.

“We design FEMA shelters to be above grade, designed per code,” he said. “They’re designed for a 250-mile-an-hour wind speed and to keep people safe. People will be able to walk out and be unharmed.”

New shelter designs are based on lessons learned in previous storms.

To help federal officials establish guidelines for safe room construction, the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University studied the destruction left by 90 different storms to learn what withstands tornadoes.

Then the wind lab tested safe room designs by firing a 15-pound 2-by-4 out of a cannon at 100 mph at doors and walls. Flying debris is often the most dangerous part of a tornado.

The average home basement is safer than most places in a severe storm, Redford said. But if it has a wood floor above it, rather than the 4 inches of concrete required in FEMA shelters, debris can still come crashing down and cause injuries or worse.

“The basement is a safer place to be, but not compared to a FEMA shelter,” he said.

Hedrick said storm shelters offer peace of mind at schools when tornado sirens scream outside.

“We have seen that this is an extremely stressful situation, and of course it would be,” she said.

“And yet, when the students and staff are in a safe room, they know they’re safe. They know they’re protected, and so the stress level is diminished.”

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