The administration of Enterprise High School did the right thing by keeping students in the school building during the March 1 tornado. I applaud their plan, which probably saved the lives of dozens of students. Yes, we mourn the loss of the precious lives that were lost, but we can’t let that distort the school closing issue.
I truly regret that our friends in Enterprise are having to deal with the countless array of national TV “talking heads” who are playing Monday Morning Quarterback, and being critical of their decision not to dismiss school. All of these people have basically no understanding of tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, the tornado warning process, Alabama weather history, and engineering methods in home and school design and construction. It is all noise, and I know the people in Southeast Alabama will be glad when those people leave town.
Lets say that the school was dismissed at mid-morning (just like the national media insists was the right plan). Lets face it; a large percentage of high school students would not have gone home to watch severe weather coverage. They would be on the phone talking with friends, playing video games, watching cable or satellite TV (most likely not local stations), logging in to MySpace on the Internet, or driving in their car (the ones with a drivers license). And, some of the students (not a majority of them in that system, however) would be in a mobile home. I would suggest the death toll could have been much higher in this case.
In my 29 years in broadcast meteorology, I cannot recall one single death, or even an injury in an Alabama school prior to last Thursday (since 1978). However, there have been hundreds of deaths in mobile homes and vehicles. Many have died in site built homes as well. There is no doubt, and I mean no doubt, that a school building is safer than a mobile home or car during a tornado. And, quite frankly, school buildings are safer than many site built homes. You might be surprised to know how many homes in Alabama sit on a concrete slab with absolutely no anchors; the only thing that is keeping them on the slab is gravity.
Is a school building perfectly safe? Of course not. We sure learned that this past Thursday. Is any building or home perfectly safe? No really, unless you are in an underground bunker, or in a concrete and steel structure designed for F5 tornado winds.
it is important to understand every severe weather situation and every school system is different. And, there are no black and white rules about what is right and wrong concerning school closings during a tornado threat. But, I remain a general proponent of leaving students in a school building on a day when severe weather is a major threat. Parents should have the option of keeping their children home with them if they believe that is the safest place for them. But, in many rural areas a large percentage of Alabama children live in mobile homes, and when there is no school that means the kids won’t have access to the safest possible place for them, and they will stay home in the worst place.
We do need a good engineering study of the failed wall at the school in Enterprise, and that study needs to be used for every new school that is designed and built in Alabama, and other tornado prone areas. There is always something to learn from a tragedy like this.
But, once again, I applaud the school officials for keeping the students in the school building last Thursday. For everyone (especially the national media crowd) critical of them, I suggest they need to ride out a tornado in a car, truck, bus, mobile home, or non-anchored site built home, and they just might change their mind, if they survive.