Joplin, Oklahoma tornadoes help improve emergency planning

bbashioum@demo-mo.comMay 24, 2013 

May 22 marked the two-year anniversary of a devastating EF5 tornado that swept through Joplin, a community 120 miles south of Harrisonville, with 200-plus-mph winds, killing 160 people.

The horror of a two-mile wide tornado matching the strength with what was experienced in southern Missouri was relived on Monday when it leveled homes, schools and businesses in Moore, Okla., an Oklahoma City suburb of 56,000 people and the site of similar twisters in 1999 and again in 2003.

Early reports indicate that the tornado spanned 1.3 miles – the length of more than 22 football fields lined up end-to-end – causing at least 24 deaths.

The tornado swept through at least two occupied schools in Moore, killing at least seven students at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

When devastation from a national disaster occurs, especially at a school, the incident becomes an opportunity for area school officials to reevaluate their emergency plans.

“After Joplin occurred two years ago, we went and looked at our plan,” Harrisonville School District Assistant Superintendent Tim Ryan said.

In the Harrisonville district, preparation for natural disasters actually never stops.

“We do a lot of drills,” said Ryan, who oversees the district’s crisis planning strategies.

Students practice tornado drills two or three times a year, more frequently during peak tornado season.

Ryan said the youngest of the district’s students can reach their designated tornado safety areas in under three minutes. The response time for older students is much quicker, he said. Ryan said the district will do the same with the Moore tornado as they did with the Joplin disaster as more information is available.

“As you become aware of things that happened during those, you need to change what you do,” Ryan added.

“We’re going to look at what comes out of Moore, Okla. and what they figure actually happened as we move forward.”

In lessons learned from Joplin, a video was produced that included clips of wind gusts from the tornado going through the halls of one of the schools in the area.

“There is video of a full Coke machine being pushed down the hall,” Ryan said. “It was like a wind tunnel – it tunneled all the wind from the tornado down the hallway.”

As a result of what occurred in Joplin, Ryan said, the Harrisonville School District stopped to evaluate their own safety plans.

“If you don’t have a basement, you have to shelter in interior hallways. Sometimes, in some of our buildings, (students) were sheltering in the hallways, away from the doors. Instead of doing that, we actually moved some of our students from hallways that might have an exterior door, to truly interior hallways where there would not be that wind tunnel effect any more where the full force of a tornado would come down a hallway.”

While there may be an urge to pick up your children from school as a tornado may be approaching, Ryan still believes a school building may be the safest place.

“I think our schools are probably the safest place for students to be – probably safer than their own homes,” he said.

It is still possible for schools to be destroyed in the event of a powerful tornado, he said.

“It’s not that our schools are unsafe,” Ryan said. “If it were a Moore-type or a Joplin tornado, it is hard to fathom how you would build a building to withstand those. No building codes are going to cover withstanding a 250-mile-per-hour wind.”

During potentially severe weather, Ryan utilizes the Red Cross Tornado app to monitor National Weather Service watches and warnings.

“The moment a watch is posted, I will let every building principal know that we are in a watch,” he said.

Once a warning is made, alarms sound and the students and teachers react.

“At that point in time, we take shelter and hope for the best,” he said.

Efforts are also in place on the municipal and county levels for plans in case of severe weather.

Raymore Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Moos works cooperatively with other cities and counties to maintain a local emergency operation plan that is designed to work with all sorts of incidents. Moos said the plan is reviewed annually for changes. After devastation strikes, there is a sequence for recovery.

“As you’re seeing in Oklahoma now, you will secure the area and do life-safety and rescue,” Moos said. “Once that area has been searched and everyone has been accounted for, then it will be opened up for property owners to come back in and receive some of their items and check their properties.”

Moos said during a chance of a tornado, the best thing to do is to get below ground.

“Make sure you have a designated safe area in your home,” he said. “Get to the most interior part of the structure that you’re in without windows or glass, and have a way to know what’s going on – such as a hazard weather radio.”

He also advises residents to have a 72-hour kit prepared and stored in your safe area should a disaster occur.

In the kit, Moos recommends to have a three-day supply of food, clothes, medicines, flashlights, blankets, batteries and copies of important documents.

“If you don’t know where the best place is, you can call your local emergency manager and he can give you a recommendation,” Moos said. “It is a personal responsibility for you to designate what area is safe for you.”

Cass County Emergency Management Director Stan Swaggart is part of the Kansas City Urban Area Security Initiative that collaborates and participates in exercises with other organizations to plan for emergencies and natural disasters.

“We have working agreements, mutual aid agreements and memorandums of understanding with everybody in the area that if something like (Moore) happens, everybody would come to our aid, or vice-versa, we go to their aid,” he said.

Swaggart said the organization could also call in the state emergency management and get access to the National Guard.

“Should it overwhelm them, then it’s when FEMA gets called in,” he said. “It’s kind of like a big pyramid – we start locally and go up as we need to.”

Swaggart recommended several websites to help individuals prepare for disasters:

Prepare Metro KC (www.preparemetrokc.org).

The American Red Cross (www.redcross.org).

The Salvation Army (www.salvationarmyusa.org).

Ready in 3 (http://health.mo.gov/emergencies/readyin3).

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