Omaha a leader in school storm safety -
Published Monday, May 27, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 6:58 am
Omaha a leader in school storm safety

The planet's most powerful storms — tornadoes — pummel the central United States every spring and summer. Yet schools that lie in their paths rarely have hardened shelters designed to withstand the kind of force that tore through Moore, Okla., last week, killing seven elementary school students.

Almost nobody requires them.

The federal government doesn't. Neither do most states, including Oklahoma, Nebraska or Iowa. Even most cities and counties don't, though local school boards in recent years have been taking action.

And then there's Omaha.

Shattered by a $1 billion tornado in 1975, the city took a step that perhaps no other city has taken in rebuilding: requiring shelters in all new schools, trailer parks and apartment buildings.

One expert called Omaha a leader in storm shelter construction. Omaha schoolchildren are not the only ones who have benefited. The city's rule may have raised the bar in surrounding communities, which have increasingly added hardened shelters for new schools.

“There may be other surprises out there, but you're essentially unique,” said Ernst Kiesling of the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University. Kiesling also is executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association.

“You would be a leader in all areas, an incubator for other entities,” he said.

The Oklahoma tragedy has parents, schools and safety officials asking whether fortified safe rooms should be mandatory at schools. Some Oklahoma schools have the safe rooms, but Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, where the children died, had not yet received its safe room.

Kiesling said he has no doubt that the Oklahoma children would be alive today if their school had been equipped with a shelter that met his association's standards or those of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“They would have been saved,” he said.

John Spatz, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, said school safety in recent years has been mostly about preventing intruders from getting inside buildings. The Oklahoma disaster is likely to turn some attention toward tornado readiness.

“We've not had a lot of discussion on this, but I think we will over the next year,” Spatz said.

Until now, tornadoes have been viewed as an act of God. Schools haven't been expected to build against them, he said.

“What is our responsibility, now, in hindsight?” Spatz said. “From a legal point of view, what is the reasonably prudent thing that schools should do? And if this is something schools need to do, what is the cost?”

Omaha's long history of requiring shelters should be a model for the rest of the nation, Kiesling said. Beginning in 1980, all new schools had to be equipped with the shelters.

Since about 1990, the Omaha Public Schools have gone even further, adding shelters to older schools undergoing renovations.

“That's a big thing, because we're talking existing schools,” Kiesling said.

OPS has reinforced shelters in more than 40 of its 93 new and renovated educational buildings, said Kailyn Watson, a spokeswoman for the school district. The remaining buildings have designated safe areas, such as at- or below-grade rooms or interior spaces with masonry walls and no windows.

Bellevue began incorporating storm shelters into school construction in the mid-1990s and has four schools equipped with concrete-reinforced rooms. Elkhorn and Bennington have been incorporating the reinforced shelters into school construction since 2000.

Similar information was not available for Papillion-La Vista, Ralston and Douglas County West school districts.

Council Bluffs has one school, Kirn Middle School, with a reinforced shelter.

Because schools are locally funded and controlled, local school boards decide whether to include shelters.

Mary Gannon, attorney for the Iowa Association of School Boards, expects Iowa to consider a statewide shelter requirement in the wake of last week's tornado in Moore. The state studied the idea at least once before, after an EF5 tornado — the top of the Enhanced Fujita scale — hit Parkersburg in 2008, killing seven people and damaging a high school.

“My guess is we may see something in the near future,” Gannon said.

At OPS, spokesman David Patton said federal reviews of what happened in Oklahoma are likely, and the Omaha district will review the suggestions in that analysis.

Tornado shelters are pricey per square foot — about 30 percent more than standard school construction. But they become more affordable when seen in the context of the entire building, adding about 5 percent to the total cost.

FEMA has been encouraging wind-resistant structures in schools since the 1970s, said Bob Franke, senior civil engineer for FEMA's Region VII. While shelter construction is voluntary, any shelter built to FEMA standards now must be able to withstand winds of 250 mph, he said.

Initially Omaha's building codes required that local shelters be built to withstand 200 mph winds. But that standard has changed to reflect the newer, stricter FEMA standard. The city will also adopt new international building codes later this year, said Jay Davis, superintendent of the City of Omaha building and development division.

Patrick Phelan, an architect who specializes in school construction and a principal with design firm DLR Group, said some Nebraska districts also are voluntarily including fortified shelters in new schools.

Districts are less likely to do so with expansions because school boards, mindful of tight budgets, are prone to rely on the existing traditional shelter in the main building, such as a locker room.

Retrofitting an old building can be cost prohibitive, Phelan and Franke said, whereas Kiesling said there are times when a retrofit is feasible.

Besides local tax dollars, the chief source of funding for school tornado shelters is post-disaster assistance from FEMA. Since 2009, the agency has spent $29 million in Iowa building 37 new safe rooms in schools, FEMA spokeswoman Amanda Bicknell said.

In recent years, FEMA has funded two tornado shelters for Nebraska schools, she said. Ponca Public Schools has received $554,493, and Meridian Public Schools will receive $637,743.

A superintendent whose district has been through a tornado said that in addition to bricks and mortar, there's another protection every parent can trust: the school staff.

In Mapleton, Iowa, teachers have drilled to the point that children can be safely in a shelter within a minute of an alarm, said Steve Oberg, Mapleton's superintendent. An EF3 tornado struck that town in 2011.

“My staff would do anything to keep the kids safe,” Oberg said. “I'm sure they would put their life on the line before any kid would get hurt.”

World-Herald staff writer Kevin Cole and researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.

Contact the writers: 402-444-1102,; 402-444-1037,

Area districts' storm precautions

Bennington Public Schools

» Conduct tornado drills twice a year — typically in the fall and spring

» Have annual review of drills by the building's principal, superintendent and district safety committee

» Use no portable classrooms

» Have designated storm shelters in all four schools

» Have storm shelters in the three schools constructed since 2005

» Have professional engineers inspect buildings with suspected damage

Papillion-La Vista Public Schools

» Conduct tornado drills twice a year — typically in the fall and spring

» Have designated storm shelters in each school, though location varies from school to school

» Have portable classrooms

» Have the buildings and grounds department work with local agencies each year to update designated storm shelter locations

Elkhorn Public Schools

» Conduct tornado drills as deemed necessary by each building

» Have a comprehensive safety plan at each school

» Have portable classrooms

» In schools built since 2000 (including seven currently open), have specialized storm shelters that can also serve as classrooms or locker rooms

» Have local police and fire departments help determine where storm shelters should be

Bellevue Public Schools

» Conduct tornado drills once a year

» Incorporate since mid-1990s storm shelter design into school construction in district with 21 buildings

» Do not have portable classrooms

» Allow children to be sheltered in gyms and lunchrooms

» Evacuation/sheltering plans not independently reviewed by someone with expertise in wind damage

Millard Public Schools

» Conduct tornado drills once a year as part of comprehensive emergency response plan

» Have individualized procedures in place for district's 38 buildings: 35 schools and three support buildings

» Have district design drills that are reviewed by police and fire personnel and independent auditors

Omaha Public Schools

» Conduct tornado drills twice a year

» Have designated shelter or storm safety area in each building

» Have portable classrooms

» Have district continuously review and update weather safety plans

» Have designated storm shelters that meet FEMA guidelines in 42 of 93 educational facilities

Council Bluffs Community School District

» Conduct tornado drills four times a year for each building

» Have 13 elementary schools, two middle schools (one with designated storm shelter), two high schools and two buildings for special programs

» Have no portable classrooms

» Have Institute for Environmental Assessment audit buildings

Westside Community Schools

» Conduct minimum of three tornado drills during tornado season

» Have designated storm shelter in each school

» Have portable classrooms

» Have used independent services to help identify the safest shelter locations in buildings

Gretna Public Schools

» Conduct minimum of two tornado drills — sometimes more

» Have portable classrooms, though they were not used this year

» Bring in Sarpy County Civil Defense Department to identify safe areas during a tornado

» Common shelters include interior classrooms, locker rooms and restrooms

Contact the writer: Nancy Gaarder    |   402-444-1102    |  

Nancy writes about weather, including a blog, Nancy's Almanac. She enjoys explaining the science behind weather and making weather stories relevant in daily life.

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