CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa- Stormy weather typically starts in spring and Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management officials want schools to make things safer for students in the future. They’re recommending more heavily-reinforced “safe rooms” to use as shelters during tornado warnings.
Safe rooms built to federal standards can withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour. And the walls need to resist debris strikes equivalent to a typical two by four piece of lumber traveling at 100 miles per hour.
Currently, Homeland Security in Iowa has helped fund 40 tornado safe room projects in 33 school districts. The total cost so far is $42-million dollars.
The Cedar Rapids School District has one safe room equipped to hold nearly 500 people. But it’s not at any of the district’s school buildings.
Instead, Homeland Security asked administrators to include the safe room in construction plans for the district’s administrative office building on Edgewood Road. Cedar Rapids has not built a new school in 12 years. But other districts have and have opted for the funding to add safe rooms.
One example is in the Alburnett district. Some of the students may not even realize one wing of the school is a giant safe room that can hold 800 people. Inside and out the addition that opened in 2012 doesn’t look that different from the rest of the building.
But the space, five classrooms and a storage age, all have special “hurricane” windows to withstand high winds and walls much thicker than normal.
Teacher Amelia Kibbie almost got hurt in the 2006 Iowa City tornado. So when it’s tornado drill time in Alburnett she tells students that storm safety makes a difference.
“It was a very scary experience — debris flying through the air. I kind made it out in time and it was very traumatizing. So I tell them (students) learn from my mistake,” Kibbie said.
The Homeland Security money to help pay for a safe room area came at the right time for Alburnett as the district was needing to expand and renovate. The funding picked up slightly more than half the $2.1-million dollar price tag.
By contrast, the safe room in the basement of the Cedar Rapids School District office sits empty and can’t be used except as a storm shelter for those working at the offices or visiting.
Dave Benson, Cedar Rapids Superintendent, said it’s almost impossible to add a safe room facility to existing school buildings. But he’d have a different opinion if it ever came to new construction.
“I think anytime the school district would build new walls, so to speak, I think safe room consideration has to be part of that planning,” Benson said.
Until then, schools will largely follow the same safety plan they have for years — find interior space with at least two walls to the outside and wait out the storm there.
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