The storm shelter area at Selma High School is inside of the walls in the main hallways on the first and second floors. Students would need to evacuate their classrooms into the hallways during a tornado warning, when school officials would close the doors in the hallways — doors that can withstand 225 mph winds.
The storm shelter area at Selma High School is inside of the walls in the main hallways on the first and second floors. Students would need to evacuate their classrooms into the hallways during a tornado warning, when school officials would close the doors in the hallways — doors that can withstand 225 mph winds.

Selma, Dallas County Schools build, plan with storms in mind

Published 9:59pm Tuesday, May 21, 2013

In the wake of deadly tornados that devastated several schools in suburban Oklahoma City, thoughts turn to the safety of children in Selma and Dallas County Schools.

One school structure in town is equipped with its very own storm structure built into the hallways, and school officials say other schools made of cinder block are still among the safer places to be when storms hit.

Jonathan Grammer who was one of the construction managers with Volkert Construction on site at the newly built Selma High School, said if a dangerous tornado were to come through Selma like the one seen this week in Oklahoma, the storm shelter at Selma High would be left standing.

“Everything would be basically blown away and you most likely would have two rectangular cylinders stacked on top of each other that didn’t get blown away, because they go all the way down into the foundations,” Grammer said, explaining the walls, floor and ceilings of the shelters are made with poured concrete.

These concrete slabs are reinforced with steel rebar and are seven inches thick. The slabs, he said, would look similar to the concrete beams on a bridge or an overpass.

The shelters at Selma High School are inside of the walls in the main hallways on the first and second floors. Students would need to evacuate their classrooms into the hallways during a tornado warning, when school officials would close the doors in the hallways — doors that can withstand 225 mph winds.

“The doors have steel rods that slide in them and secure the doors shut,” said Ray Mathiews, transportation director for Selma City Schools. Mathiews supervised much of the Selma High School building project and said Selma was the second school in Alabama to be built with a storm shelter of its kind. Former Alabama Governor Bob Riley signed a law in 2010 requiring all new school construction to include tornado shelters after eight students died in Enterprise High School during a tornado in 2007.

As a result, the Alabama Building Commission went forth using International Code Council 500, or ICC 500, as the standards for the new storm-safe schools.

Selma High’s shelter used this code and the school was in its planning phase when the law was enacted, “So we had to go back and includes the shelter as part of the plan,” Grammer said, adding that schools he has worked on in Alabama have used Selma’s storm shelter hallways as a model for their own construction.

Dallas County School authorities say they have storm shelters nearby their schools for community usage, but their schools are already safer than most houses and trailers.

“It’s really the safest place to be in the county,” Don Willingham, assistant superintendent for Dallas County Schools said. “All of our schools are probably safer than any of our homes and certainly trailers … We worry about this and certainly practice all of our drills for tornado and serious weather.”

There are currently three tornado shelters in Dallas County that were provided through a hazard litigation grant the county applies for.

Dallas County EMA director Rhonda Abbott said there are three more shelters in the works.

“We currently have three — one on Alabama Highway 14 near the Burnsville Volunteer Fire Department, one near Tipton and the other on Keith High School’s campus,” Abbott said, explaining all are locked until there is a tornado watch underway for the county. “We have three more planned for the Southside High School campus, one in Plantersville and one on Dallas County Road 65 near the horse arena.”

All of the shelters are pre-fabricated, use concrete slabs and sit above the ground. They can hold close to 120 people each, so she explained most of the schools would use their hallways and these shelters would be for the community in a tornado.

“They are for the public to use, and we encourage the public to use these shelters. That’s what they are there for — they do save lives,” Abbott said. “We even encourage them have shelters put into their yard. Anything they can do to protect their life. Even if it is just going to an interior room, do whatever you need to do to protect yourself.”

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