WSFA 12 special report: Tornado Proof - - Columbia, South Carolina

WSFA 12 special report: Tornado Proof


The WSFA 12 Weather team does their best to give you an advanced warning before a storm strikes, but if you don't have a place to go then it doesn't do any good.

Guidelines recommend an interior room or closet, but those might not offer enough protection from bricks, boards and glass flying through the air at 200 miles per hours. That's why some homeowners, businesses and now schools are choosing to build storm shelters.

In this special report, we show you what schools are doing to keep your children safe when severe weather strikes and what you need to know about storm shelters.

"It's better to go ahead and be safe, than to be sorry and mourn the loss later," said Nancy Myers.

That is a line that many have heard before and when a tornado strikes, having a safe shelter can be the difference between life and death.

It is a lesson that we all learned on March 1, 2007 in Enterprise when an EF-4 tornado took aim at Enterprise High School. The school policy was to send the students into the hallway for protection, but the hallway was no match for the tornado. One of the walls in the high school collapsed and killed eight students.

Since that day, parents have asked the same question: "Is my child safe at school?" The answer to that question is complicated.

In 2010, Alabama became the first state to require new schools being constructed to include safe shelters. Since the law was passed, 35 new schools have either been completed or are under construction.

Today, the hallways at Montgomery's Wilson Elementary School look nearly identical to the hallways at Enterprise High School, but they are in fact very different. The Wilson School hallways are reinforced storm shelters that are capable of withstanding 250 mph winds.

"The walls are designed to crumble down versus collapse onto people," said Meredith Bishop, Principal of Wilson Elementary.

This raises the question though, what about safety in existing schools?

"Schools that are already in place have options to construct shelters within the structure," said Lee Helms, former Alabama State EMA Director. "So they're not excluded simply because they were built before a certain date."

The new Enterprise High School opened in 2010, and it includes several storm shelters. Since April 27, 2011, many schools in North Alabama have added on safe rooms with the help of FEMA funding.

About 10 percent of schools in Alabama have either installed safe rooms, are in the process of having them installed or are in the planning stages.

According to the Alabama Department of Education there are 39 schools, either newly constructed, under construction or being designed, that have safe shelters. In the WSFA viewing area, those schools include Selma High School, Park Crossing High School, Carroll High School and Auburn's new elementary school.

Schools can apply for FEMA funding to install safe rooms. Former Alabama State EMA Director, Lee Helms, explains how school systems can apply in the video at the top of this story.

[WEB EXTRA: New schools that have or will have safe spaces (.pdf)]

So, work continues on keeping kids safe, but what about the adults?

There are more than 3,000 people who work at the Hyundai Plant in Montgomery County. The company has shelled out $4.1 Million to construct several underground shelters for its employees.

"They can house each and every employee, even during a shift change," said Hyundai spokesman Robert Burns. "Hyundai invested big bucks into these shelters."

The average citizen however doesn't have big bucks to spend on constructing a storm shelter. That is where creativity can go a long way.

Nancy and Billy Myers own Country Acres, which is a mobile home community near Eclectic. The property did not have a tornado shelter, but after an EF-4 tornado killed three people at the park on April 27, 2011, they knew they had to have one.

What was once a grassy patch of land, is now a source of safety for residents of the mobile home community. Billy took a cargo shipping container and buried it into the side of a hill. It is sturdy, safe and provides peace of mind.

"Most people are willing to get in it now, and I think it makes everybody feel a little bit better," Nancy said.

The goal is to protect every man, woman and child in our state of nearly five million. We can't prevent tornados from forming, but we can help stop a tornado from leaving a deadly legacy. Storm shelters may be out best line of defense. Like Nancy said, it is better to be safe than Sorry.

Community shelters on average cost around $80,000 and can hold around 100 people. The average cost of a home shelter is between $3,000-9,000 depending on the size. FEMA recommends at least six square feet of space per person.

If you do not have a shelter, the best place in the home to go is to a small room on the lowest floor and away from windows. A bike helmet, car seat, boots and a blanket or coat can offer extra protection from shards of glass, splinters and other airborne objects.

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