Is your child's school tornado tough? - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Tenn. school become tornado tough; other districts take note

Is your child's school tornado tough? Is your child's school tornado tough?
For some West Tennessee students and teachers, a few clicks can be the difference between life or death. For some West Tennessee students and teachers, a few clicks can be the difference between life or death.

(WMC) - Many of those who survived the storm in Vilonia, Arkansas were protected in a fortified gym at one of the public schools. Storm shelters save lives, and one Mid-South school district shows it became tornado tough.

For some West Tennessee students and teachers, a few door clicks can be the difference between life or death.

"Just walk outside their classroom door, and we lock the system down, and they can just stand there. Teachers can actually carry on class if they wanted to outside in the hallway," said principal Mike Bell.

At Lakewood Elementary and Middle School in Paris, Tenn., safety is top priority. That is why during a 10 week period last summer, three existing hallways inside the school were retro-fitted with a six-inch steel frame designed to withstand tornado-strength winds.

"Everybody realizes that once springtime comes, we always have that chance of a tornado spawning," said Jason Pirtle, TLM Associates. "What those panels do is they are designed to resist a 250 mile-per-hour wind load and pressures resulting from that as well as a debris impact from a 15 pound two-by -four traveling at 100 miles per hour. If you think about an exterior saferoom, you've got a group of maybe 25 kindergarten-aged students that you're gonna have to carry or guide through the school into that exterior shelter or safe room. It's something that causes the teachers a lot of stress."

With this retrofit, students are literally steps away from safety.

"What happens, when they go into tornado drill lockdown, they come out of the classroom, the normal classroom door they use everyday, but when we go to tornado lockdown, they come out to hallway, everybody exits the room, these are steel doors. They close the doors, reach up, thumb bolt here, thumb bolt here, and also there," said Henry County Maintenance Supervisor John Akers.

"Normal safety protocol is to go into hallways, and we've not changed that at all except one aspect. Without a storm shelter, you'll have to crouch on the ground to provide protection from debris falling on you. Well, in a safe room, you don't have to crouch. You can stand, sit, mill about if you need to," said Pirtle.

Henry County school superintendent Sam Miles says it is money well spent. It puts the cost of the project at about $1.5 million per school; there are still two more to go.

FEMA paid for 75 percent of this retrofit job. TEMA funds paid 12.5 percent leaving Henry County to come up with the rest.

"When you're responsible for almost 900 students, there's a level of uneasiness about their safety and with something like this, it makes you sleep a little better at night knowing that when you come in , in the morning you can provide that level of safety the students deserve," said Miles.

Other school districts are taking note. FEMA and TEMA monies were used in Tipton County to add six tornado proof classrooms at Atoka Elementary. And in DeSoto County, Mississippi federal and state funding are helping build six new stand alone safe rooms at six elementary schools.

A spokesperson for Shelby County schools says the district has discussed retrofit projects in the past, but right now they say funding for such enhancements is not available.

"I think it's something for schools to think about and not even just schools, but industry, when you've got a lot of people in one space," said Miles.

The students and staff at one West Tennessee school believe they will be ready.

The steel retrofit at Lakewood Elementary and Middle School is also bullet proof, withstanding .44-caliber bullets in a mock school shooting scenario. It's also earthquake proof.

And during severe weather after school hours, the school serves as a saferoom for the entire community.

You can see how devastating tornado damage near the Mid-South can be with this before and after interactive designed for desktop computers:

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