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Tornado a warning for schools in Pittsburgh region

| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 11:49 p.m.

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

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

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 Monday's Oklahoma tornado remained at 24 on Wednesday, including nine children, though the figure is expected to grow and some people were still unaccounted for Wednesday.

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.

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, for example, specifies instructions for responding to a tornado in its emergency operations plan, said John Tedorski, the district's technology services director who oversees safety and security issues.

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

During a tornado, students would go 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.

A March 23, 2011, tornado — ranked as an EF2 under the enhanced scale that went into effect in 2007 and packing 120 mph winds — barreled through Hempfield, damaging the Hempfield Area School District's high school auditorium roof and stadium. About 200 students at the high school for extracurricular activities took shelter in the school basement and field house.

The storm destroyed about 30 homes and damaged nearly 100 others in Westmoreland County.

Hempfield holds its severe weather drill in March. Students evacuate classrooms into hallways, crouching down against lockers and placing a book behind their heads, Superintendent Andy Leopold said.

Moon Area School District keeps weather radios in each of its seven schools for emergency broadcasts from PEMA, district spokeswoman Megan Edwards said. During a weather emergency, students in classrooms without windows would stay put; others would move into hallways and put their backs against lockers or walls.

About 15 tornadoes occur in Pennsylvania annually, most of them at the least severe EF0 and EF1 levels, Jung said.

The South Butler County School District was hard hit by 21 tornadoes that ripped through parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania on May 31, 1985, including Pennsylvania's only F5-rated tornado under the original Fujita scale. Those twisters killed 76 people, including six people near Saxonburg, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or

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