SALEM — Summer may be winding down, but as the school year winds back up, Call 6 Investigates has learned K-12 students in Indiana are vulnerable when it comes to tornadoes.
Indiana has no laws or building codes in place requiring tornado shelters in your child’s school, nor does Indiana have any rules requiring newly constructed schools include a storm shelter.
Most Indiana schools do not have basements, nor do they have tornado shelters or safe rooms in place, leaving children to hunker down in interior hallways and rooms.
Call 6 Investigates has learned federal funding is available to build tornado protection for students, but most schools have not applied for the money.
Elementary school creates tornado safe room
Across the rolling corn fields of southern Indiana, tornadoes are common.
The footage of the deadly 2012 tornado that hit a Henryville school resonated with mother of two Nicole Purlee.
“It was terrifying,” Purlee said. “These are our babies, these are our kids.”
Purlee lives in Salem, which is 19 miles from Henryville.
Her two children attend classes at Bradie Shrum Elementary in Salem.
She doesn’t worry much about her children’s safety during tornadoes, because the school installed a state-of-the-art tornado safe room.
“It means the world, because if something happens, I know they’re safe,” Purlee said. “I know the teachers and administrators will do everything they can to get them to the safe room area.”
The school calls the shelter a safe room, but it’s actually an entire wing with four classrooms and a multi-purpose room that can be used for meetings, indoor recess, professional development and large group instruction.
Students and teachers use the rooms on a daily basis, but when a tornado strikes, the space doubles as the school’s tornado shelter.
Bradie Shrum Elementary is the first school in the state to build a tornado safe room of this magnitude.
It can hold up to 1,200 students and staff during a tornado and withstand winds of up to 250 mph.
It has reinforced concrete, as well as tornado and missile safe glass windows, as well as doors than can also be closed over the windows as an added safety measure.
The building is so robust, it helped students stay calm during a tornado warning in March 2019.
“They didn't even realize something was going on outside the building,” Brent Minton, principal at Bradie Shrum Elementary, said. “They had a good time and rested. It was a good experience for them."
Minton and retired superintendent Lynn Reed both became concerned after the 2012 Henryville tornado and sprang to action.
“The devastation was just amazing, and we didn't want that for our kids and for our students,” Minton said. “We wanted to provide them with the safest building possible."
Federal funds are available for Indiana schools to build tornado safe rooms
Salem Community Schools contacted the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, who encouraged the district to apply for a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grant to make the $3 million tornado safe room a reality.
Salem was required to put up a 25% match, but they put in even more with $1.4 million.
“It’s one of the best uses of taxpayer money,” Reed said. “We did not (get any pushback.) Our parents want our children safe and they were very happy we pursued this.”
The Indiana Department of Homeland Security wants schools to know the state can receive grants for up to 10 tornado safe rooms per year.
“We need to build up how many of these we have in our state, so we are trying to get the word out about safe rooms,” said Mary Moran, branch director with IDHS’s Response and Recovery Division. “We have to meet the federal standard for safe rooms when we use federal dollars to fund them, and the standards are much higher and can withstand much higher wind gusts than a regular building.”
The state’s hazard mitigation program has been around for decades and has mostly focused on flooding because it’s the most costly and frequent disaster, but Moran said they are trying to shift more attention to tornadoes.
Moran said many school districts do not apply because they have to put up a 25% match, and because of the staff time involved in applying for the grant.
“These are very detailed applications, and it does take a lot of work,” Moran said. “About a year, to a year and a half to develop an application."
Moran said parents should pay attention to where their children are going during a tornado.
“I think it’s a very big deal to have a safe room,” Moran said. “If I were a parent, that would definitely be a selling point if the building where my child was going was reinforced.”
Indiana is at 'high risk' for tornadoes, Indiana Dept of Homeland Security says
Indiana is at high risk for tornadoes, according to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, which means our schools and children are vulnerable throughout the school year.
This map shows Indiana is at risk for high wind and tornado events with wind gusts of over 250 mph.
“As we build more things, there will be even more people potentially at risk,” Moran said. “We can’t tie a specific GPS location to where it’s going to strike. It can happen anywhere across the state.”
An average of 1,253 tornadoes happen in the United States every year, data shows, with Indiana averaging 22 twisters a year.
Peak tornado season here in central Indiana is spring into early summer with a secondary season in the fall.
“Every school and every child are potentially impacted by tornadoes,” Moran said.
We’ve seen both urban and rural areas hit by tornadoes in recent years, including the June 15 damage to Beech Grove High School.
A basement is one of the safest places to be during a tornado, but unfortunately, most schools in Indiana do not have basements.
Most students go to an interior hallway or room with no windows and doors and hunker down with their hands behind their head.
“Some protection is better than no protection,” Moran said.
Storm shelters offer much more protection from flying debris, which is one of the biggest risks during a tornado.
Call 6 Investigates found other states with laws or building codes in place requiring storm shelters on newly constructed schools including Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan.
Ohio also passed a similar rule for newly constructed schools but the state postponed the requirement until September 2020 so the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission can study the issue.
For new schools, the requirements call for storm shelters to have space for every student and teacher in the building.
Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky average fewer tornadoes than Indiana, yet Indiana’s neighboring states have regulations in place to include tornado shelters in new school buildings.
Adding a tornado shelter to a newly constructed building adds about 5 percent to the cost of the school.
Salem hopes other school districts will apply
Parents and school officials in Salem told us they would support Indiana requiring storm shelters for new school buildings.
“We hope all school corporations get to have a facility like this to keep their kids safe,” Purlee said. “Our kids are worth it. They are our future, and we want them to have the best learning environment possible.”
Retired superintendent Lynn Reed said there’s a good reason why many school districts aren’t building storm shelters.
“I think they just don’t know funding is available,” Reed said. “People think it doesn’t happen here, but it does happen.”
Salem has already applied for FEMA funding to bring tornado safe rooms to their middle and high schools.
“We are happy to protect our elementary students and our staff, but our middle school and high school students and teachers are just as important,” Minton said.
They encourage other school districts to take greater steps to protect themselves from this type of natural disaster.
“Your kids are important,” Minton said. “Seek it out and see what you can do to get it done. Protect your students.”
Salem was the first school district in Indiana to receive this grant for a tornado safe room, but other grants have been awarded including to boy scout camp, Maumee Scout Reservation, in southern Indiana.
Do you want to bring a tornado shelter or safe room to your child’s school?
Talk to your principal, superintendent or school board and visit the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s mitigation website for more information about tornado safe room funding.
You can also talk to your state lawmakers about what they’re doing to keep students safe during a tornado.