Schools in Joplin, Missouri Stand Up to Tornadoes by Building Safe Rooms


A deadly tornado struck Joplin, Missouri one Sunday in May 2011 killing 161. The toll on life could have been higher had it occurred on a weekday. The tornado destroyed or damaged many of the 14 schools in the Joplin School District where more than 7,000 students attend classes. At the time, there were no safe rooms for students to seek shelter in Joplin.  In 2023, there are saferooms now.


Since 2011, the Joplin School District has built 14 school safe rooms with federal assistance.

Constructed to provide near-absolute protection against injury or death in extreme weather events, the safe rooms meet FEMA specifications, including the ability to withstand winds up to 250 mph. Constructed of reinforced or insulated concrete and impact-resistant walls and roofs, the safe rooms provide a haven. Contractors used impact-resistant coverings for doors and windows as an added measure of protection.  Occupants access the shelters in the building quickly and easily, avoiding going outside in a storm.

There’s more good news about these safe rooms: they function differently during blue sky days.

“Our safe rooms are also used as gyms, an office area, a television production studio, wrestling room, an industry tech classroom and a locker room,” said Joplin School District Assistant Superintendent Kerry Sachetta. 

Sachetts was principal of Joplin High School in 2011 when it was destroyed. As a result, the multi-use safe rooms are a community interest, too. “Safe rooms open during the day [after weather warnings] for students, but community residents may come here also if they have no other place to go,” said the assistant superintendent.

When the National Weather Service issues warnings, the school district opens the shelters. They also open them, Sachetta says, when a tornado touches down in southeast Kansas or nearby Oklahoma. With these severe weather systems, sometimes tornadoes hits Missouri from those areas as well.

Significant severe weather threatened Joplin and other parts of Missouri May 22, 2019, the eighth anniversary of the 2011 disaster. Joplin school shelters provided a safe place for nearly 1,500-1,700 occupants that day.

Retired Joplin School District staffer Kay Johnson volunteered as shelter monitor at Kelsey Norman Elementary School, where 200 residents, some joined by their crated dogs, or in one case a bird, sought refuge during the storm. Tornado emergencies generally last less than two hours. However, Kay and Michael, her husband, brought food to the shelter for those in the safe room.

Asked about the impact of the 2011 tornado on her emergency preparations, Johnson says it’s always on her mind when severe weather arises as it is with those who seek safety at these shelters. Heavily damaged by the tornado, the Johnsons repaired their home, living elsewhere for four months. 

“One of the toughest decisions I have to make is when to close the [safe room] doors,” said Johnson. “If I don’t see anyone coming, I close the doors,” said Johnson who worries about locking anyone out. The school district designates a Tornado Protection Zone, a TPZ—a half-mile radius around each school—as the area from which residents can take shelter in a school safe room when a tornado threatens. It’s an area estimated to be a five-minute walk to the school, but if anyone can get there in time, the doors are open to them. The saferooms are wheelchair accessible.

People leave the safe room when all clear is issued by emergency officials. Some ask to remain longer, that’s fine with Kay Johnson and the school district. “I just want people to stay until they feel safe enough to leave.” She also wants people to be comfortable to use the shelter.

Other Missouri school districts, including Webb City and Eldon, also built safe rooms since 2011.

The Webb City School District, less than 10 miles from Joplin, was under the same weather warning on May 22, 2019. “About 2,300 students and residents sheltered at our four school safe rooms, including 900-1000 at the Webb City High School Dome,” said Dr. Kevin Cooper, assistant superintendent of that school district. Shelters open when winds top 75 mph or tornado sirens sound.

Eldon School District, 176 miles from Joplin, has built one safe room in an elementary school that holds up to 1,200 occupants. About sixty showed up the evening of May 22, 2019.

The same storm system that threatened these three communities that night eventually struck much farther north, in Jefferson City, where it cut a destructive path through some neighborhoods. It was the first such tornado there for decades. 

FEMA can fund safe room grants and pays for 75% of safe room costs through the Hazard Mitigation Grants Program or the Building Resilience Infrastructure and Communities - both administered by the state. Eligible applicants for school safe room funding must apply through the State Hazard Mitigation Officer.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to initiate changes, to take steps to mitigate against another disaster. “We [those affected by the tornado] are complacent no more,” said Kay Johnson. Safe rooms in some school districts in southwest Missouri are a testimony to taking action for safety.

Key Takeaways

Last updated