— By DAVID MAY
Monday’s killer tornado in Moore, Okla., showed that reliable shelter above ground is hard to come by when Mother Nature’s biggest and most powerful cyclone sweeps across the ground. That includes school buildings.
The deaths of seven children in the demolished Plaza Towers Elementary School has worried parents and officials to the point that, with the threat of severe and tornadic weather on Tuesday, several North Texas school districts dismissed students by midday.
Area residents not only had pictures and videos of the destruction in Central Oklahoma fresh on their minds, but also last week’s deadly tornadoes that swept across North Texas – 16 confirmed by the National Weather Service – including EF-4 and EF-3 tornadoes that struck Hood and Johnson counties.
Parker County had several tornado warnings during the May 15 outbreak, and spotters and video captured one twister as it damaged several structures in the Millsap area. Though not large in scale compared to the Oklahoma and Hood and Johnson County tornadoes, it still had the potential to cause damage and even death.
Tornadoes were also believed to caused damage to an area of Tin Top Road south of Weatherford while rotation and a possible funnel cloud was also spotted in the Annettas area.
Local school officials contacted say they closely monitor developing weather situations, and students go through drills in the event of an actual emergency. Not much has changed in how schools still instruct students to take cover during a tornado – in interior hallways and rooms away from glass, hunkered down and covering their heads for protection.
“Our hearts go out to the families in Granbury, Cleburne and Oklahoma,” said Millsap ISD Superintendent David Belding. “While the storm we had in Millsap last week was difficult, the devastation in Oklahoma breaks our hearts. When the tornado went through Millsap last week, we were fortunate that no one was seriously hurt. The response by the Millsap VFD, Mr. (Larry) Walden (county commissioner) and his staff and our school district staff was excellent as we all worked closely together to ensure communication and service.”
Belding said during severe weather MISD staff monitors weather reports. Each principal and the district’s central office has a NOAA Severe Weather Alert radio.
“If the National Weather Service issues a warning the principals will receive that warning directly from the radios,” Belding said. “If severe weather is in our area, campuses adjust student activity to ensure safety.”
For tornado drills in Millsap, Belding said each teacher is assigned an area of their building for their class to report. Those areas are selected based on the safest possible spot in the school in the case of a tornado event, he said.
“One large issue is keeping the students and staff away from glass doors and windows,” Belding stated. “Our plan calls for a distance of 30 feet from exterior glass. We do instruct students to kneel facing the interior wall with their head down and hands protecting the back of the neck and head. We will not take shelter in a classroom that has an exterior wall. We use interior rooms or hallways. In addition, we will not use the gymnasiums, as the high ceilings are a danger in the event of a tornado.”
Millsap’s new elementary school is a steel structural building with “components of the building that have wind-resistant reinforcement design such as the elementary gymnasium,” Belding said. “The building is rated for straight-wind situations, which makes it a safe structure in most weather-related conditions.
He said as part of the district’s emergency plan, Millsap ISD conducts regular fire and tornado/severe weather drills.
“The safety of our students and staff is our number one priority,” Belding said. “We will remain diligent in any type of situation, but especially weather as conditions change in an instant.”
Likewise, Weatherford ISD also conducts tornado and severe weather drills throughout the school year, said WISD Public Information Officer Derik Moore. He said campuses work to place students into what are considered the safest places in the building, such as places with no windows and away from exterior walls.
Moore said hallways are utilized if they are not in direct access to exterior doorways. Restrooms and dressing rooms are also utilized if they are not next to an exterior wall and do not have windows.
“Students are trained to get low to the ground to help shield their head and upper body region as much as possible,” Moore said.
He added WISD has access to a full-time meteorologist as well as radar and hour-by-hour weather reports through AccuWeather (Skyguard).
“Each campus principal, assistant principal, coaches/P.E. who coach an outside sport, as well as district administrators, receive text messages when approaching severe weather enters the area,” Moore said. “This gives time for each campus to respond to lightning threats, high winds, tornadoes, etc. This would also apply to outdoor sporting contests and/or extra-curricular practices. When warnings are issued, all outside activities must immediately cease, and safety protocol steps are taken to ensure all students and staff members are safe.”