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Tornado's lessons not lost on Alle-Kiski Valley schools

| Friday, May 24, 2013, 12:41 a.m.

Pennsylvania law does not require schools to have safe rooms to protect students during severe storms, but it does require at least one disaster drill annually, officials said.

The Kiski Area School District doesn't have any buildings built entirely or in part to withstand tornadoes but drills students and staff on how to respond to one every year so it's “fresh in the minds of our faculty and students before the beginning of tornado season,” said John Tedorski, the district's technology services director, who also oversees safety and security issues.

The monster tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., and parts of Oklahoma City on Monday — with winds of more than 200 mph to put it atop the Enhanced Fujita scale at EF5 — reduced two elementary schools to rubble, killing seven children inside one of the buildings.

The deaths and devastation likely will heighten awareness among Pennsylvania school officials, even though such storms here typically are low-impact, a school safety expert said.

“I think that schools will take notice of this and the schools will start preparing more,” said Donald Smith Jr., emergency planning and response management coordinator for the Center for Safe Schools in Camp Hill.

He noted that happened following the Joplin, Mo., tornado in May 2011.

The Joplin tornado, also a most severe EF5, killed 150 people, said Peter Jung, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in State College.

The official death count from the Oklahoma tornado remained at 24 on Thursday, including 10 children.

Officials from several Western Pennsylvania schools said they constantly review safety plans, not just after tragedies.

The Emergency Management Services Act requires schools to complete one annual school disaster drill, Smith said. Most schools partner with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in March and most use a tornado scenario, he said.

The last such drill was March 5.

Because the rules are vague, drills can range from basic to extensive. Some districts cut power to the school and add wind and rain sound effects, Smith said.

School districts are required to have emergency preparedness plans. Kiski Area specifies instructions for responding to a tornado in its emergency operations plan, Tedorski said.

Kiski Area conducts a tornado drill during the state's disaster drill, even if it does not include a tornado, Tedorski said.

“We have a plan in place to move our students to the most appropriate area of shelter in each building,” he said.

At Deer Lakes, each teacher and classroom have a safety manual for procedures to be used in the event of a crisis situation. The information is reviewed periodically throughout the year during in-service sessions or building meetings, district spokeswoman Kathy Makuta said.

All buildings have “shelter in place” locations that are designated for use in an emergency, she said.

Hazardous weather exercise

Each school within the Freeport Area School District participates in the state's spring hazardous weather exercise, district spokesman Todd O'Shell said.

“Teachers in a classroom follow through a preparedness drill, which includes taking the students to the safest part of the building that will be less susceptible to tornado damage,” O'Shell said.

Officials with several area districts said that during a tornado, students would be moved into hallways away from exterior glass windows, to the sturdiest area of a building, or below ground to a basement area, if possible.

Unfortunately, the force of the EF5 tornado that hit the two schools in Moore demolished most interior walls.

Although uncommon, tornadoes have appeared in the Alle-Kiski Valley area.

The South Butler County School District was among the areas hard hit by 21 tornadoes that ripped through northeastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania on May 31, 1985, including the state's only recorded EF5 tornado.

Those twisters killed 76 people in Ohio and Pennsylvania, becoming the deadliest tornado outbreak ever documented in Pennsylvania, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Six of those deaths occurred near Saxonburg.

Staff writers Renatta Signorini, Brian C. Rittmeyer and Mary Ann Thomas contributed to this report. Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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