Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

January 21, 2014

Battling ice, snow, schools run drills for tornadoes

By Boris Ladwig and Rob Cox Daily News
Greensburg Daily News

---- — GREENSBURG – As Decatur County schools are responding nearly daily to snow and ice emergencies, they are preparing and running drills for severe weather of another kind: tornados.

Greensburg Community Schools ran a severe weather drill Monday, and Bruce Copple, school resource officer, said he was pleased with the results.

“We’re in good shape on our (response to) severe weather,” he said.

Greensburg officials know from experiences nearly two years ago, when their sectional basketball match was delayed and nearly canceled when severe weather threatened to bear down on the local high school. Thankfully that weather pattern turned away from the Greensburg area — though it later produced a devastating tornado in Henryville.

Every year, school officials walk through the corporation’s buildings with firefighters, police officers and other emergency responders to make sure that all parties know of updated safety plans and to address any potential problems, Copple said.

The local high school hosts lots of tournaments, and about five days before the Henryville tornado weather was moving toward south-central Indiana, Copple said local officials brought in experts to figure out whether the high school could shelter the up to 5,000 visitors who were expected to attend the sectional game. Authorities had buses standing by in the parking lot to prepare for a potential evacuation of the gymnasium, because the school did not have enough capacity to shelter everyone during such a large event. Buses were to take some of the spectators to other nearby shelters.

During inspections around that time, authorities also eliminated some areas as primary shelters, including the band hallway, which is a hallway north of the auditorium, because a steal beam above the hallway might, in a collapse, pose danger to people who were sheltered there. A teacher’s lounge also was eliminated as a primary shelter because of the proximity to pool chemicals.

But, Copple said, school officials also found some areas that were structurally more secure than they previously thought, such as some classrooms and a hallway near the library.

For the roughly 600 kids who occupy the building on normal school days, the school has more than enough shelter space, said Tom Hunter, superintendent of Greensburg Community Schools.

Copple said school officials and first responders took that approach with every building, making sure that they had the best plan in place and had identified the best locations in which students can take shelter in severe weather.

Hunter emphasized that the decisions about where students should be sheltered were made by structural architects and emergency management personnel — not by educators.

At the elementary school, for example, authorities identified more secondary shelter areas, and, thanks to some additions, the school today can protect about 600 children better than it could 400 students a few years ago, Copple said.

According to Decatur County Community Schools (DCCS) Superintendent Johnny Budd, the 2012 Henryville school collapse didn’t drastically alter the way the district prepares for hazardous weather.

“What happened in Henryville impacted the whole state,” Budd said. “I’ve attended conferences where the principal of the [Henryville] school and the superintendent have talked about the tornado and what they learned from the collapse and the changes they made, but most of the changes we’ve implemented as a result of Henryville have been based on recommendations from the state based on what happened there.”

“We’re constantly striving to make sure we’re always as safe as we possibly can be,” Budd said.

At one time, he added, hallways were considered the safest place for students to take refuge from a tornado, but those guidelines have been changed.

“Hallways are now considered dangerous due to the hazards posed by wind whipping through and flying debris,” he said.

Small, interior rooms with low ceilings are generally considered the safest places for students to take shelter during a severe storm. All four DCCS schools, he added, have plenty of space for students that fit the aforementioned description.

DCCS recently named Decatur County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Deputy Rob Duckworth its school resource officer, a position whose salary is funded by a state grant.

Duckworth’s job includes continually working with the district to make sure emergency plans are up-to-date and as efficient and inclusive as possible. He will also attend conferences and do continual training to help remain current of school safety.

“Our safety plans are constantly reviewed and assessed and changed,” Budd said. “We’re making changes to them right now, as we speak. We are committed to doing everything we possibly can to remain educated and up-to-date when it comes to keeping our kids safe.”

Two years ago, Greensburg schools dodged a bullet, when the severe weather nearly forced officials to cancel the sectional event, Hunter said. As it was, the event was delayed by 90 minutes because Lawrenceburgh officials waited that long before they released their students to head toward Greensburg.

And while Copple said that everyone hopes to avoid a repeat of a situation during this year's sectional, everyone also wants to make sure that if severe weather comes, local schools are prepared.

At the same time, Hunter said, if an F5 tornado roars through the area, few, if any buildings in the city, will be able to withstand its wrath.

Contact: Boris Ladwig 812-663-3111 x7401, boris.ladwig@greensburgdailynews.com; Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011, robert.cox@greensburgdailynews.com