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2011 Joplin Tornado Served As Wake-Up Call For School Officials

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Gail Banzet-Ellis
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Oklahoma Tornado Project

Two years ago, a violent tornado hit Joplin, Mo. at a time when children were not in their classrooms. If the day and time had been different, that community could have become known for students killed by a storm instead of Moore, Oklahoma.

That near miss caused officials with the Joplin schools to look at storm shelters in a new light.

The May 22, 2011 tornado damaged or destroyed half of the Joplin school district’s 20 buildings, including the high school, three elementary sites and a middle school. Construction should be complete on all facilities by August, but a shiny Irving Elementary opened its doors in January.

The building’s centrally located gymnasium doubles as a reinforced storm shelter.

“The great thing about the storm shelters is that they don’t look like storm shelters,” says Principal Nila Vance. “They look like places that we use every day and we do use them every day.”

The shelter is a place for fun and childhood games, but Jason Cravens, executive director of secondary education, says he’s confident the structure will also save lives, since it’s hardened to withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour.

“It even says missile resistant on the sign so that gives you a little sense of comfort for the quality of the construction,” Cravens says.

Because Joplin’s tornado hit on a Sunday, students weren’t at school, but the storm was a huge wakeup call. With the exception of a few basements, the city’s schools didn’t have storm shelters, but Cravens says taking cover in hallways is no longer a viable option.

“Post-tornado when we walked the damaged schools, looked at hallways, we realized hey, this is not a safe place for students just even by debris and vending machines being thrown down hallways,” he says.

The district applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants that would pay 75 percent of a storm shelter’s costs.

The general capacity of each gymnasium shelter is around 1,000–1,500 students. Once the high school is complete later this summer, it will hold 2,500 people.

In the Moore tornado, parents rushed to pick up their kids from school before the storm hit, but Cravens says Joplin’s structures are safe havens for not only students but also parents. 

“Now school is a safe place, so we anticipate parents wanting to rather than pick their child up and leave, wanting to stay with their child within the storm shelter if it were timed around the time of end of school,” Cravens says.

If storms are predicted and parents insist on taking their kids out of school, Principal Vance says Joplin is prepared to allow the request.

Irving Elementary is unique for reasons beyond its state-of-the-art storm shelters, with its warm lighting, spacious rooms, and bright colors of red, green and blue--a design created by students, teachers and parents.

Fourth grade teacher Kathy Nicodemus says the creative environment and storm shelter in disguise have put students at ease.

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Ahead of the Storm: The Oklahoma Tornado Project stories are produced by KGOU News, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Reports may be used in any media with appropriate credit given to KGOU and CPB. For details, refer to our Terms of Use.

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