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Oklahoma tornado's aftermath: How safe were schools in Moore?

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The main reason that schools lack them is cost. Especially for an existing school, retrofitting it with a storm shelter can be cost-prohibitive. FEMA has funds available in communities that have been hit by a tornado before – as Moore was in 1999 – but retrofitting undamaged buildings can still be cost-prohibitive and in many cases involve substantial red tape, says Steve Satterly, director of transportation and school safety for Southern Hancock Schools in New Palestine, Ind., and an expert on school tornado safety.

When Henryville, Ind., was hit last year by an EF4 tornado and two schools were largely destroyed, they opted not to rebuild with a shelter, he notes. Doing so would have involved a lot of bureaucratic hoops and a big delay, and there was strong interest in getting the schools reopened as soon as possible to help the community rebound and get back to normal.

In addition, Mr. Satterly notes that hindsight can be perfect, but that many of the decisions schools have to make around tornadoes happen in an instant, with a situation that’s impossible to predict.

The high school in Enterprise, Ala., hit by an EF4 tornado on March 1, 2007, was criticized by many for not sending students home when there were tornado warnings, and eight students in the school were killed. But the intense storms throughout the day would have made sending the students home highly risky, Satterly says, noting that buses are often the worst place to be, and that Enterprise actually did everything by the book.

“Sometimes,” he says, “no matter what you do you’re still in extreme danger because of the strength of the tornado.”

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