Tornado plans required for Minnesota schools

In a file photo from June 10, 2008, a huge tornado funnel cloud touches down in Orchard, Iowa. The powerful tornado that ripped through Oklahoma Monday, killing 24 people, has focused attention on the safety of school children during violent storms.
AP Photo/Lori Mehmen

The powerful tornado that ripped through Oklahoma Monday, killing 24 people, has focused attention on the safety of school children during violent storms.

At least seven of the dead in Moore, a suburb south of Oklahoma City, were children taking refuge in a school.

In Minnesota, schools are required to have plans in place in case a tornado strikes. And one Minnesota school destroyed by a tornado three years ago was rebuilt with twisters in mind.

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By law, Minnesota schools are required to hold a variety of safety drills every year. They include five fire drills, five lockdown drills, and one tornado drill, said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Along with the tornado drill, Hovis said, schools are also required to have a crisis management plan in place that includes a response in case of a tornado.

During a tornado, a key concern is moving students away from anything that could become airborne, said Rick Kaufman, director of communications and emergency management for the Bloomington, Minn., school district.

Massive Tornado
The school zone sign for Plaza Towers Elementary school stands at an angle after the area was damaged by a tornado May 21, 2013 in Moore, Okla. The town reported a tornado of at least EF4 strength and two miles wide that touched down yesterday killing at least 24 people and leveling everything in its path. U.S. President Barack Obama promised federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
Brett Deering/Getty Images

"Flying glass or doors that could be broken off that create debris that could injure and kill students or staff is what you want to be concerned about," Kaufman said.

Because Minnesota schools range in age and design, the safest place in a storm can vary. It could be a basement locker room, or an interior hallway, or a bathroom.

Often students end up hunkering down in several spots.

Wadena superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom is glad students were on summer vacation when a tornado struck Wadena High School June 17, 2010. A few adults were in the school that day preparing for a reunion when an F4 tornado struck. They took shelter in a basement locker room.

The school, which took a direct hit, suffered major damage.

"The school was quite a well-built school," Dahlstrom said. "For that to happen, it was quite a significant tornado."

For Dahlstrom, the storm was an eye-opener. Hallways where students would have been sent if school had been in session weren't as safe as she hoped.

"The hallways actually ended up being more like a wind tunnel, with debris," she said.

The school suffered so much damage, it had to be torn down and rebuilt.

The new $40 million school, which opened last fall, included a tornado-proof gymnasium big enough to shelter 1,200 people.

A nearly $1 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security helped pay for the construction.

Dahlstrom the walls of the new school are made of concrete one foot thick. Its roof can stand up to the strongest tornado, an F5.

"You would never know when you drive up that it's a separate building constructed to take 250 mph winds," she said.

Dahlstrom said more Minnesota schools should consider tornado proof buildings, but notes that cost and space are often the main barriers.

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