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Students at Creekside Elementary School in Limestone County during a tornado drill last week. The school’s designer doubts the school would survive a direct hit from a tornado.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Students at Creekside Elementary School in Limestone County during a tornado drill last week. The school’s designer doubts the school would survive a direct hit from a tornado.

Tornado warning for area schools
Local experts say most facilities wouldn’t survive direct twister hit

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com · 340-2432

Would your child’s school survive a direct hit by a tornado?

Local experts say probably not.

Jimmy Brothers, director of Decatur’s building department said it’s doubtful a local school would withstand a tornado similar to the one that hit Enterprise High School, killing eight students March 1. The National Weather Service said the F3 tornado cut a path 200 yards wide and 10 miles long.

An F3 has winds of 136 to 165 mph. It is in the mid-range between the weakest F1 and most destructive F5.

“The only way to get away (from a similar tornado) is to burrow underground,” Brothers said.

“A tornado just carries a tremendous, tremendous amount of force that sometimes it’s almost like an atomic bomb went off,” said architect Mack Freeman, whose company, McCauley Associates Inc. of Birmingham, designed about a dozen local schools in the past 10 years.

His designs include Cotaco Junior High and West Morgan and Priceville elementaries in Morgan County; East Lawrence Elementary in Lawrence County; and Creekside and Cedar Hill elementaries in Limestone County. Freeman doubts they would survive a direct hit.

Greg Qualls of Qualls Engineering in Decatur said schools are not considered essential facilities like hospitals, fire stations and police departments, so building standards are not as strict.

The Alabama Building Commission approves designs for all school construction. It requires new school buildings to withstand 90 mph, three-second wind gusts and 70 mph sustained gusts. This provides some protection from hurricanes.

The commission’s director, Kippy Tate, and the architect for the state Department of Education, Perry Taylor, say construction follows 2003 international building code requirements. Taylor said new schools are better built than the school hit in Enterprise.

Tate said a question about whether the Enterprise experience will move the Building Commission to adopt safe-room requirements is premature because all of its members are not on board yet. Gov. Bob Riley, Finance Director Jim Main and state Superintendent Joe Morton share commission duties with several state senators and representatives.

The price of safety

To get to the nitty gritty, you must address how much the public is willing to pay for safety. Here the debate draws in the law of averages. The on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia states tornadoes killed 27 people in Alabama schools since 1884. Alabama is No. 1 in school deaths among all states with eight events, including the one at Enterprise.

Experts agree that the only real protection from a tornado would be a safe room built with a combination of steel and concrete to Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines. Freemen estimated the additional cost of such a room for shelter use only at between $200,000 and $500,000, depending upon the number sheltered. Dual use increases cost.

Following the 1989 tornado that hit Huntsville’s Jones Valley Elementary after school, parents and residents lived with the horror of what might have been. Qualls designed a safe room for the school.

Freeman said schools built between 1940 and the early 1960s tend to be stronger, because they were constructed with a Cold War “bunker mentality.” As those fears waned, building regulations relaxed. But regulations grew tighter in the past decade.

Architect Frank Nola Jr. of SKT Architects said he employed a recent trend of using concrete-filled, concrete block walls and concrete ceilings to create hardened enclosures surrounding two halls in Decatur’s Banks-Caddell Elementary.

A mechanical mezzanine runs above an overhead platform (ceiling) so there is no mechanical equipment or ductwork to fall and injure someone. Roof and wall collapse killed Enterprise students.

Nola said, however, that even this newer design probably wouldn’t withstand an Enterprise-like tornado.

“We created a hardened area that, if the roof came down, it wouldn’t come down on top of those inside,” Nola said. “It might not withstand such a catastrophe, but it would be much, much more durable.”

Decatur architect Fred Underwood of Underwood and Associates said architects had to re-evaluate how they design schools. He said windowless schools are not good because studies show that teachers and students feel better when they can see outside. Safety has forced architects to design schools with fewer windows.

This mindset came long after workers constructed Hartselle High School. Principal Jerry Reeves said the school’s age makes it difficult to place all students where they are not visible from at least an outside door.

Underwood said F.E. Burleson Elementary in Hartselle, a school his firm designed, may be one of Morgan County’s safest. Multiple walls with no windows protect the inside corridor.

Deangelo McDaniel and M.J. Ellington contributed to this story.

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