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SYMMES TWP, Ohio - Some schools are better equipped than others to protect students and staff from a tornado.
Many Cincinnati area schools lack a basement shelter, a WCPO Digital survey found. By itself, a school basement doesn't make occupants safe from a tornado, experts say. But it can be an advantage, especially in the path of an especially violent tornado like the one that devastated Moore, Okla., this week.
Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy may be as well prepared for a tornado as any local school.
On April 9, 1999, a pre-dawn F-4 tornado struck the Blue Ash area, killing four people, destroying 200 homes and damaging 400 more. It also ripped off parts of the roof at CHCA Middle School. Students had to finish the school year at the high school in makeshift classrooms in gym and other parts of the building.
CHCA has four tornado plans, Communications Director Beth Andrews said Tuesday. They cover contingencies for a tornado detected in the area, a tornado anticipated at dismissal time, a tornado during outdoor athletic events and a tornado striking a school building.
But none of the three CHCA school buildings in Symmes Township has a basement, and only one - the elementary school - has a lower level partially underground.
Roger Edwards of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., says the lowest floor of a school building usually offers the most protection. Tragically, the seven students killed at the elementary school in Moore drowned in the basement when a water main burst and the ceiling caved in, the state superintendent of schools said.
The National Weather Service's "Tornado Safety in Schools" recommends the most interior areas on the ground floor. But in the most violent tornadoes - EF4 or EF5 with winds up to 200 mph or even higher - no place above ground is considered safe.
Many factors contribute to school safety in the event of a tornado:
If the school has a basement, is it suitable for an emergency shelter, or is it too small or contain hazards like generators or electrical stations?
Does the school have interior hallways, rooms or corridors with strong walls that are not exposed to the outside through windows, doors or walls of glass, such as trophy cases? Flying debris is the biggest tornado hazard, Edwards says.
Can the school's tornado plan be executed quickly? If it takes more than two or three minutes to move students into safe places, the plan needs to be reworked, Edwards says.
Some schools in Tornado Alley have safe room storm shelters that can withstand winds of an EF-5 tornado and the accompanying debris.
In Wichita, Kan., 77 public schools have safe rooms reinforced with 10 to 12 inches of concrete, steel doors and "missile protection" roofs. They came at a high cost - $45 million – and other districts say they cannot afford them. Statewide, $67 million has been spent to since 2001 to build 190 safe rooms in Kansas schools.
WCPO Digital surveyed some local school districts to find out if their schools have basements:
Cincinnati Public Schools: Older buildings have basements but might not be suitable for shelters and the newer buildings would not. The preferred shelter is an enclosed hallway.
Finneytown: 2 of 3 have basements for shelters
Forest Hills: No basements
Lockland: Basement is fortified; used to be used for civil defense
Madeira: No basements
Mt. Healthy: No basements
Northwest: No basements
Boone County Schools have several schools with lower levels that are partially underground. But the county emergency management doesn't approve of using those as storm shelters because of the boilers in the basement.
Fort Thomas Schools: 4 out of 5 schools have basements
Newport Intermediate: Newport Intermediate and Newport Middle have basements where classrooms are located.
Silver Grove Schools: The district's facilities are all in one building and it does have a basement.
Gallatin County: No buildings have basements
Grant County: The high school has a lower level for students. The middle school has some rooms that are underground but not an entire level underground.
Pendleton County: The high school has a basement.
Bethel-Tate: Hill Intermediate has a partial basement.
Felicity-Franklin: One school has a basement
Goshen: No basements. Students take shelter on first floor.
Mary Tignor and Lauren Beymer contributed to this story.
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