Shelter From the Storm: Missouri Schools Build Tornado Safe Rooms

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Nixa, Mo. — It’s been almost one year since a giant, EF5 tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people and leveling the city. The twister, Moore’s worst in 14 years, ripped off the roofs and walls of two elementary schools, ending the lives of seven of its students and galvanizing their families to push for a law that would provide the state’s 1,800 public school buildings with tornado-safe rooms.

Months later, the ballot initiative is still ensnared in a legal battle over how to pay for the new safety measures. But some of Oklahoma’s northeast neighbors have been hard at work fortifying their schools and revising their tornado drills in the wake of their own game-changing storm: the deadly twister that whipped through Joplin, Missouri in 2011.

“It was like the Missouri version of 9/11,” said Zac Rantz, director of communications for Nixa’s public school district. Rantz also volunteered in the aftermath of Joplin’s tornado, which hit almost exactly two years before Moore’s. “We had been used to the little bitty EF1 tornados that would destroy a few houses and call it a day. Joplin was different. It flattened three-story buildings. It looked like someone took a lawnmower into the middle of the city and just mowed.”

Joplin, an hour away from Nixa, has remained in the forefront of Nixa residents’ minds. Marissa Sage, who grew up in Joplin, can still recall the fear and worry on the day the tornado hit her hometown.

“My son and husband were going to be right there” visiting family, said Sage. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe until 8 p.m., when I finally got a text message [saying] they were okay.”

Ethan Sage, Marissa’s then 8-year-old son, recalls hiding under a mattress in the hallway of his uncle’s house, watching the roof fly off a storage company across the street. The next day was worse; Ethan saw blocks full of splintered wood, trash—and bodies.

“I saw dead people under the piles of debris,” said Ethan, now 11. “We were helping people, giving them rides in my dad’s truck. I still think about that day.”

A sign visible in the entrance to the FEMA tornado shelter in Helen Matthews Elementary in Nixa, Mo., describes the guidelines to be followed in case of an emergency.David Welker / for NBC News

But Joplin’s devastation didn’t just create traumatic memories; it was also the impetus for overhauling southwest Missouri’s disaster preparedness. Christian County, which includes Nixa, has been particularly aggressive in pursuing FEMA grants to build tornado-safe rooms in schools. Two Nixa schools already have safe rooms, and three more are planned or are under construction. Nixa was the first in the area to have shelters in schools—the first ones were operational less than two years after the 2011 Joplin tornado—and were the first to post their building plans online. There’s a new project underway to install all new tornado-safe external doors in the schools. Other communities, including Joplin, have looked to Nixa for ideas.

The two tornado-safe rooms in Nixa, at Mathews Elementary School and Inman Intermediate School, just look like, and operate as, regular gyms.

“That’s honestly what freaks people out the most,” said Rantz. “They walk in and they don’t feel protected. They think a tornado-safe room needs to be underground.”

They may be sites of capture-the-flag games and basketball practice, but these rooms aren’t normal gymnasiums. The red-and-white walls are anchored six feet under the ground, and they’re made of cement and metal. The doors are heavy and have an airtight seal. A back room hosts a generator that lasts two hours in the event of an outage. In another storage room, there are a dozen flashlights perched on chargers, hand sanitizer, radio, wireless Internet cards for laptops, and pry bars for jammed doors.

Unlike some neighboring school districts, the FEMA gyms in Nixa open their doors to the public during tornado watches, transforming them into community centers for families, students, and the elderly. Each safe room can hold up to 1,200 people. One night in late April, just before a tornado hit Arkansas, more than a dozen people showed up at Mathews Elementary with snacks, lawn chairs and basketballs—just in case it got bad. This has happened a handful of times since the safe rooms opened in February 2013; one night attracted 80 people waiting out the watch.

Rantz said building safety rooms in schools provides “more bang for your buck” because they can double or triple as other usable spaces (one of the gyms also has a stage for smaller performances). But these new constructions aren’t cheap—Nixa’s cost between $735,000 and $2.6 million—a FEMA grant pays for 75 percent of the price. Nixa paid the rest by selling bonds; in other area school districts, they’ve covered the cost by raising property taxes.

Zac Rantz, the Nixa Public Schools Director of Communications, describes how the "tornado resistant" doors of the FEMA tornado shelter at Helen Matthews Elementary School are different from normal commercial doors.David Welker / for NBC News

In Oklahoma, there’s been fierce opposition to similar tax hikes, which has led lawmakers to push bond issues instead. But the construction of safety rooms have been mostly embraced by southwest Missouri voters, regardless of where the revenue comes from. Phil Amtower, the emergency management director for Christian County, said “it really takes a whole community when you want to become disaster-resilient,” precisely because “taxes are involved. It takes taxpayers and school boards actively saying, ‘yes, we want this stuff.’”

Amtower guesses this tax increase has been palatable in certain Christian County towns because of “our unusually large” Community Emergency Response Teams, who are ordinary citizens trained in basic disaster response skills.

“These volunteers are everywhere,” said Amtower. “They’re on school boards, they’re active with rotary, and they’re going around preaching disaster preparedness.”

Dr. April Hawkins, the principal of the Inman Intermediate School in Nixa, Mo., high fives students as they leave the FEMA tornado shelter at the school during a tornado drill.David Welker / for NBC News

April Hawkins, the principal of Inman Intermediate, is confused about why some counties in Oklahoma and Missouri haven’t applied for these grants.

“If you know that you can have access to those funds, I don’t know why a school wouldn’t do it,” she said. “We have a responsibility to build safe rooms now that we know better,” even if cities have to pony up some cash of their own.

But some changes spurred by Joplin don’t cost a thing. Nixa schools have also completely revamped their tornado drill procedures after examining surveillance footage from a Joplin high school during the 2011 twister. The standard procedure for years was duck-and-cover in the hall, but the footage showed a vending machine whipping through a hallway, which had become a wind tunnel. Luckily, no children were in its path—the twister hit on a Sunday.

“If there had been children in that school, it would have been absolutely devastating,” said Hawkins.

Students sit in the FEMA tornado shelter at the Inman Intermediate school during a tornado drill.David Welker / for NBC News

The new drill procedure is to head straight for the FEMA safe rooms, or in schools that don’t have them yet, to take cover in interior classrooms or bathrooms. Although there’s no state law mandating it, Nixa schools have decided to run these new drills four or five times during the school year.

Inman Intermediate’s last drill of the year, on the last Monday in April, took less than four minutes. All 450 students funneled into the spacious gym, then sat down quiet and cross-legged, waiting for their teachers to wave a green sign indicating that every student was accounted for. The exercise is less chaotic than the old drills in the hallway—and, with the absence of duck-and-cover, a bit less dramatic, too.

All of these changes comfort Hawkins, especially when she thinks about a green, hazy day in December 2010 that left her feeling vulnerable. That day, when a tornado was coming toward the Nixa area, the power went out during an assembly. The emergency lights didn’t come on like they were supposed to.

“The whole building was black,” she said. “If the tornado had hit us, we would have been sitting ducks groping around the dark hallways, not having any place to go.”

The safe rooms and new drills have given Ethan Sage some peace of mind, too. Every time the weather gets bad, he “freaks out” and starts remembering how scared he felt that night in Joplin. But he knows the safe room at Mathews Elementary school is just a few blocks away.

“That’s nice to think about,” he said. “I know the roof will stay on.”

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