Protecting School Children from Tornadoes: State of Kansas School Shelter Initiative


On May 3, 1999, a series of intense storms moved through “Tornado Alley,” producing numerous tornadoes that tore through areas of Oklahoma and Kansas. Two schools in Wichita, Kansas—Chisholm Life Special Education School for Teenagers to Young Adults and Greiffenstein Special Education Center—were severely damaged. Luckily, these tornados occurred after school hours, and no children were in attendance. However, the significant damage prompted school and government officials to consider the potential consequences if children had been present.


Because the event demonstrated that additional protection was needed for Kansas’ school children, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), as well as supplemental appropriations from Congress, were used to provide funding for damage-prevention projects after the tornadoes. 

The information gathered by federal, state, and local agencies from the damaged schools led to a re-examination of the criteria used to determine places of safety. The Kansas Division of Emergency Management and FEMA have ensured that the shelters built for Kansas schools meet the design, construction criteria, and operational guidelines described in Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes, Fourth Edition (FEMA P-361). These criteria and guidelines are based on the results of laboratory testing, engineering analysis, and the performance of buildings during tornadoes and other severe wind events. Shelters built to FEMA Ps-361 criteria meet the needs for structural strength, accessibility, reliability, and comfort of shelter occupants. 

Shelter space should contain, at a minimum, the following safety equipment: 

  • Flashlights with continuously charging batteries (one flashlight per 10 shelter occupants). 
  • Fire extinguishers that are appropriate for use in a closed environment with human occupancy. 
  • First-aid kits rated for shelter occupancy. 
  • NOAA weather radio with continuously charging batteries. 
  • Radio with continuously charging batteries for receiving commercial radio broadcasts. 
  • An audible sounding device that continuously charges or operates without a power source (e.g., canned air horn) to signal rescuer workers if shelter egress is blocked. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Take preventative action. The success of this school shelter program is based largely on the foresight of the Wichita Public School District and the cooperative efforts of school district officials, the State of Kansas, the private sector, and the federal government.  
  2. Build all shelters and saferooms to code. By following the guidance presented in FEMA-361, the participating schools have ensured that school children are afforded an unparalleled level of protection from the hazards associated with severe winds and windborne debris. 
  3. Learn from the Wichita Public School District. In carrying out a proactive school shelter initiative, the Wichita Public School District has taken decisive action to protect the children in its schools and led by example. Their actions spurred the implementation of a broader shelter construction program involving private and public schools in other areas of the state. 


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