By TIFFANY RONEY
In response to the Chapman tornado of 2008, three nearby schools are constructing safe rooms in their buildings.
Luann Sparks, principal of Enterprise Elementary School and Blue Ridge Elementary School, said the schools are taking advantage of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to build a safe room into each structure. Rural Center is also constructing a safe room with the same funds. The three safe rooms are designed to protect students and faculty from natural disasters.
“In light of our experiences, we see the devastation tornadoes cause,” Sparks said. “In our rural areas, our students are even more isolated than in town so it was obviously a glaring need. We want our kids safe.”
Rather than standing empty as emergency storm shelters, the safe rooms are designed for use as classrooms on a daily basis.
“The idea is to have a functional, usable space, as many homes in Kansas are now (asking), ‘How do we have a safe room, yet still incorporate this as a usable part of our home?’” Sparks said.
Sparks has answered this question for her two schools by finishing the safe rooms as music classrooms. Like normal music classrooms, they have whiteboards, instruments, technology and chairs. Uniquely, these rooms have 15-inch thick concrete walls, concrete ceilings, two methods of exit, attached restrooms and their own ventilation systems.
The double exits shave more than 6 yards from Head Start students’ walk to safety. Before the safe rooms, the 3 and 4-year-olds had to walk from their school to the front door of Enterprise Elementary School. Now, they can come straight to the school’s back door and enter the place of protection.
While students and faculty hopefully will not need the safety function on a regular basis, Sparks said the facilities’ existence is crucial.
“(For) most people, it’s easy to not stop and take in the big picture, but it is important to remember that a lot of these children have been through a tornado. They know what a tornado can do, so for them, this is a huge concern. They’ve been there,” Sparks said. “Maybe they’re here now because they lost a home in Chapman, or they lost their home in the outskirts or saw substantial damage. Some of the kids, listening to their stories, they lost so much and so, to them, they have a different mental framework when it comes to understanding the importance of what a safe room’s all about.”
Drilling it out
Before the installation of the safe rooms, students had to crowd into windowless portions of hallways and crouch down with their hands over their heads. Now tornado drills will involve filing into the safe rooms and sitting quietly in rows of chairs, Sparks said.
Sparks said the school plans to conduct tornado drills at the beginning of the school year, right before tornado season in
March and again during tornado season.
“In light of our histories, we take (drills) probably a little more seriously,” Sparks said, in reference to the Chapman tornado. “Most people will be surprised at how well our kids do on those drills because to them, they know that that could be serious. I mean, we have a lot of kiddos that had their lives impacted by going through a severe tornado. It’s amazing to take 100 children (through the drill) and it’s relatively silent.”
Construction of the safe rooms began in September 2012. The building process has encountered delays due to weather, but Sparks said completion is expected by the end of this week.
The schools are using Kansas-based builders. FEMA covers 85 percent of the costs, and the district covers the other 15 percent.
“FEMA will be funding a good portion of those rooms, so prudent districts take advantage of that, if at all possible,” Sparks said. “But it’s costly. You would be amazed at the amount of cost to make a room that is truly safe and sturdy that can withstand winds of over 100 mph. Now, there’s a lot of concrete in that building.”
The district’s costs total $500,000, Hurford said.
Despite the expense, Sparks said she wholeheartedly believes in the importance of the safe rooms.
“As a principal, you feel responsible,” Sparks said. “You have 100 children and you have 30-40 staff, and that’s an enormous responsibility that you want them safe all the time.
“I’m excited because a safe room now will give us the opportunity to provide that level of safety,” Sparks said. “I’ll be relieved when we’re there and it’s part of our reality and our daily operations. It’s here. It’s usable. It’s done. That’ll be nice.”