LAKE COUNTY, TN – After tornadoes devastated two schools in nearby cities at the beginning of summer vacation, school board officials in Ridgely, Tennesssee began revising tornado safety plans for Lake County schools. They added a safe room inside a hallway of Lara Kendall School to protect the students and local residents in need of immediate shelter. Schools throughout the state have organized plans to move the children to shelter when severe weather strikes.
While designing a new school to house elementary and middle school students, school board officials learned about Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants to assist in funding community safe rooms. With help from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), the school board officials were able to make Lake County the first in the state to implement a plan and be awarded a grant to build such a room through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). This mitigation measure for the new school was ideal, since the existing school had no sturdy place for students and faculty to seek shelter from a tornado.
Howard Todd, Lake County School’s supervisor of facilities/grounds and transportation, remembered the emergency practices in place before the safe room was complete, as well as the tornado damages to another West Tennessee school that was not built to FEMA standards.
“Before, when we had tornado drills, we went to the most interior walls in the building,” Todd said. “In Jackson, Tennessee, the most interior wall of their high school collapsed when a tornado hit overnight.”
Designed to provide “near-absolute protection” from tornadoes and severe wind events, the 260-foot long and 12-foot wide safe room can house about 600 people. FEMA Publication 361, Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms, contains specifications for rooms that are highly likely to protect occupants from injury or death. All safe room designs in FEMA 361 meet or exceed the design standards of the International Code Council (ICC)/ National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) 500 Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters.
By building the safe room, Lake County school board officials were able to create a safer environment for students and the community. The safe room is open every time a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch or warning is issued for the area.
The safe room appears to be a regular hallway, but is built and reinforced based on FEMA guidelines. It has 12-inch-thick steel-reinforced concrete walls, a 12-inch-thick poured concrete ceiling, and a heavy, wind-rated door. These elements help the structure withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour (mph; the strongest gust levels recorded in the U.S. to date). The safe room, which is equipped with a generator (protected to the same FEMA criteria as the safe room itself), weather radios, water, restrooms, and wheelchairs, provides a place for everyone to seek shelter during a storm.
“Without FEMA’s funding, we probably wouldn’t have spent the extra money during the design process to build this,” Todd said. “If we could do it again, we would like to. We use it often, and this is probably the safest place in the county.”