After Virginia tornadoes, schools prepare for disasters

Posted at 7:25 PM, May 21, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-21 19:25:44-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)--At Three Chopt Elementary School in Henrico County, students take part in a state-mandated tornado drill at least once a year.

The exercise is to prepare students, teachers and administrations for an actual emergency.

On April 18, 2011, a powerful F 3 tornado tore through Gloucester County around 7 pm, ripping the roof off Page Middle School.  The storm also crumbled walls and flipped school buses.

The destruction served as an important lesson to school leaders across the state, who began re-evaluating their own safety procedures and policies.

Around 50 tornadoes were recorded in Virginia in 2011, the second most on record since 1950.  The year ranks only behind 2004, when 87 tornadoes touched down.

“Each year we take a look at our building and we look at the classes,” says Three Chopt principal Rob Spotts.  “Then we try to make sure the students can leave their classrooms and go to the safe classrooms as quickly as possible.”

In Virginia, every school district is required to identify the safest locations in their school buildings based on the architecture and location of the school.

For most schools, the safest locations are interior rooms, bathrooms, closets, stairwells and hallways that are far from windows, doors, and glass cases.

Gymnasiums and cafeterias are usually unsafe places for students to seek shelter.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management makes recommendations to local school districts and localities pass the information on to  individual school safety committees to help set policies and procedures.

Bob Spieldenner with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management says knowledge and preparation are key to saving lives when powerful tornadoes hit.

“We need to be ready for those types of storms because they can happen anywhere in Virginia,” Spieldenner says.

Rob Spotts says it’s been difficult watching coverage of Monday’s devastating tornado in Oklahoma, that directly hit two schools and claimed the lives of nine children.

Spotts says his school’s safety committee will likely re-evaluate their own safety policies to ensure the best procedures are in place.

“You just hope you’re going to put them in the safest position possible, which is what it sounds like they did yesterday and just pray for the best,” Spotts says.