The Enterprise High School Situation

| March 4, 2007 @ 8:19 pm | 78 Replies

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.


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James Spann is one of the most recognized and trusted television meteorologists in the industry. He holds the AMS CCM designation and television seals from the AMS and NWA. He is a past winner of the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year from both professional organizations.

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  1. Craig says:

    Don’t be surprised to see Drudge link this thing… I sure hope they do not.

  2. M. Talmage Graham says:

    In the interest of defending the safety of school children, the Enterprise High School administrators, Mr. Spann, and Bayes’ Theorem, consider that on April 6, 2005, in Mize, Mississippi, the Mize Attendance Center administration received a NOAA tornado warning and evacuated everyone to the hallways on the lower floor. The school, having 650 K-12 students and faculty, was then directly hit by an F3 tornado. There were no fatalities or injuries. Pundits may compound the tragedy at Enterprise by bloviating about how the fatalities might have been avoided if only we would follow their myopic opinions, but ignore the triumph at Mize when administration did exactly the right thing.

  3. Mike Wilhelm says:

    There are a lot of good points on here. I think in the vast majority, if not all cases, schools should remain open. If they must be closed, they should be closed all day.

    This was the first instance in 16 years that a tornado caused fatalities at a school in the entire United States.

    This is what an Enterprise student and teacher who witnessed the tornado said, “senior Charles Strickland said the carnage would have been far worse if students were trying to leave school during the storm. “If they’d let us out, they’d be looking at 50 to 300 dead,” Strickland said. He pointed to a parking lot full of students’ vehicles that were thrown around by the twister, with some coming to rest against the building. “Imagine those kids in the parking lot sitting in those cars,” English teacher Beverly Thompson said.”

    That quote was from an article at the following URL:

    I have written an article about this on my blog at:

  4. Bill in Vigo says:

    Good evening everyone from. Thank God we don’t have a school here. I really don’t want to place blame in this instance because I also believe that the school was probably the safest place. In the spring of 98 in the Kissimmee/Buena Ventura Lakes/Morningstar subdivision, all in the Osceola County area of Central Florida. T here was a tornado that went through. The storm was an F4 possobly upgraded to F5. There were dozens of deaths and large numbers of injured. They were bringing people to the local hospitals in the backs of pickup trucks on doors. I had several of my frinds killed and one friend had his baby pulled from his arms and later found dead. this storm was strong enough to pull condrete side walks up from the ground amd move them across the street. This storm passed over at least one school that suffered only minor damage. A few minutres it crossed a small campground/mobile home park where there were many deaths. It destroyed a Winn Dixie supermarket and hundreds of homes. There was no school that day.

    As far as the strength of the school buildings most are a central hallway with class rooms on either side. One improvement would to be to reinforce the central walls and to subdivide the halls into sections with storm doors making the areas smaller and stronger. A direct hit by a tornado is terible but a hit by a F4/5 is devestating. Most of our schools could be retrofitted to be better shelters than they are but it is a fact that in most cities and counties they are already the strongest buildings available for use as a shelter.

    So lets get the engeniering done and make the schools a better shelter for the future because it isn’t a question of if but when it will happen again.

    Just my two cents,


    PS God is the one that will relieve the grief and heal the hurts.

  5. Doc says:

    All the finger pointing in the world is never gonna change what happened. I feel every parent that has a child in school anywhere should make the ultimate decision “should they stay or should they go” ? I personally dont believe there is a structure anywhere that could stand a direct hit from a storm of this magnitude. So, since classes were not cancelled the day before, (we all knew way ahead of time about the threat of severe weather) it probably was the best for the children to stay put. This debate could very well last for years. As I have stated before in this blog. The bottom line is Lives We’re Lost, Homes We’re Destroyed and Lives Will Be Changed Forever. I pray that God will comfort and heal all those who suffered a lost due to this storm. I think one of the most beautiful places on the face of this earth is Millers Ferry AL (Wilcox Co.)
    Let us not forget our neighbors down there either. May God Bless You All.

  6. shane turner says:

    An F3 can kill anybody just as much as an F4 or F5. The two F4 tornadoes in 2006 and the one F4 tornado in 2005 did not kill anyone. There were a number of F3 tornadoes in 2005 and 2006 that killed a lot of people.

  7. ptm says:

    All we can do is put the past behined us, learn from mistakes made and remember the people killed at Enterprise and Millers Ferry. A call on school closing during severe weather and even during winter weather events should come from state officials regarding which areas of the state will close before the school day gets underway

  8. Victor says:

    Right on, Bill. Agreed, it was terrible tragedy, but we can learn from this and start building new schools that take improved storm survival engineering into account. There are going be tornadoes in the future, and the best we can do is plan ahead for them. It will take many years to upgrade the aging facilities in this state, and this should serve as a wake-up call for the Design/Build entities that are involved.

  9. Randy says:

    Many severe weather events in Alabama are driven by a “line of thunderstorms” that come thru. We have all gotten used to ‘well, the line has passed, now it is over.” The problem with an event like last week is that there were many discrete storms that formed that were not part of a line and once a storm passed a location the tendency was to lower the guard. In Enterprise, the storm that produced the killer tornado was the third storm with a tornado warning for Coffee county that day…..the natural tendency is to relax a little bit after previous warnings produced nothing at a given location. In interviews with students after the storm, some were joking about it just before the storm hit. it’s tough to keep up the guard that long. The other unusual part of this was that it began so early, most severe events are afternoon or evening….this one began early in Coffee county and just kept going. In my opinion, the school system had two choices to make before the school day began….either cancel for the entire day before starting classes or hold the students as events unfolded. I think that they made the right decision. Remember, the PDS watch for that area was issued about 8:30, this was after school started…the first warning came about 90 minutes later. The decision can be second guessed forever, but hindsight is 20/20. In 1994, I lost my best friend in the Goshen tornado near Piedmont, if she had been at home rather than at church, she would have survived… contrast, her sister living about 20 miles away was at another church that morning and the same tornado destroyed her mobile home, so if she had not been at church she would possibly have died…

  10. Jennifer says:

    James, I 100% agree with you that schools should remain open during severe weather. In fact, I don’t think that the school board should even have the authority to close the schools. I have seen several postings on here from parents/grandparents who feel (and understandably so) that they could better protect their children during severe weather, and that’s all great and wonderful if you can, but many parents work in places like factories, restaurants, etc…and I know of some of those places that won’t even accept a doctor’s excuse as a reason for missing/leaving work…do you really think they will let their employees go home because there’s bad weather “maybe” on the way. Absolutely NOT. The kids will more often than not be home alone. It should be 100% up to the parents as to whether or not their children stay in school. For those that CAN get their children, and hopefully get them to somewhere that’s more safe (like a storm cellar/shelter), let them do so without it counting against the child’s attendance record at school. BUT…for those parents that CANNOT leave work, and have no other safe place for their children to go, they should have the reassurance that their children are still in school and not out roaming the streets or playing video games. How naive of people to think that school children will pay attention to what’s going on. YES, the kids know WHY school is letting out early, but all they are concerned about is the fact that they don’t HAVE to be in school, and they will try to take advantage of that “free time.” My friends and I all did the same thing when school closed early for bad weather. We rode around town, hung out in parking lots here and there, and didn’t CARE what was going on with the weather. We were lucky. Things are what they are and cannot be changed, and placing blame isn’t going to solve anything. I firmly believe that more lives would have been lost had those children already left school for the day, but there is no way to prove that, because that is not what happened. Yes this is a tragedy, but it is a rare one. They were in the safest place they could have been in at the time. These days, kids in school are in more danger of knives, guns, and bomb threats than they are of severe weather. We cannot predict the future, and we cannot change the past…the only thing we can do is pick up the pieces and move on hoping and praying for the best. Thanks to the ABC/3340 weather team for all your hard work and dedication. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who suffered.

  11. Doc says:

    I agree with you ptm… very well said !

  12. JP says:

    First, I want to say to everyone who lost a loved one that day … I have no idea what you’re going through but I do know that God’s peace surpasses all understanding. In the mist of the why questions, I pray that time and God’s grace and mercy will settle your hearts. God Bless you!

    The weather can’t be changed or stopped, the only thing to do is learn and make knowledgeable decisions, build better houses, schools, work places and etc. What has happened can’t be undone, but the lives can be honored, their stories told. I heard that one student held up a beam for others to escape. This needs to be told the world needs to know this. Instead the world is hearing if this group made the right choice … … even if those people did or didn’t, would it bring back those people? NO! (I think they did make the correct choice…)

    I have heard from educators that children are not responsible enough to make this decision or that decision. Yet, when weather comes some schools systems send them out into the world expecting them to do what? … make a choice to stay safe? When their parents are at work/etc? KEEP them at school … if the school isn’t safe … spend the money to make it a safe place.

    Alabama needs to lead the Nation in this front! Our children are immensely important. Spend money on their education AND their safety while they are getting that education.

  13. Linda says:

    I have a slightly different reason for my opinion. I was in my school in Chelsea, AL when it was hit by a tornado in about 1979 or so… J.B. & James probably remember the date better than I do. The faculty did exactly what they were trained to do and the students did exactly what we had trained to do. We heard the sirens, followed by the bells for a ‘drill’ – only this was the real thing, so we calmly moved out to the hallways carrying a book and spent the next 30 minutes or so trying to get comfortable with your nose in the corner and the book opened over your head.
    I recall what seems like hundreds of times we rehearsed this in drills and other times we had bad weather and followed our safety plan. It’s a SAFETY PLAN. You plan in times of non-emergency what you will do in the times of emergency. You can’t take in all scenarios, but you do plan what to do that will cover as many as possible.
    Then, when the time comes, you follow your plan. You’ve done all you can humanly do and you do the best you can do.
    That day in 1979 or so, our school was hit. The faculty and administrators followed the plan… the kids in P.E. came in from the football field and got in a safe location. The rest of us followed our agreed upon plans. Fortunately, the only damage I recall was to the football field consession stand. It looked terrible. Seems like there was some damage to the houses behind the school too, but since I didn’t know the kids that lived there, it didn’t phase me at the time. Looking back, I’m glad the families weren’t at home at the time.
    Now, suppose we’d all planned and practiced what to do, but when the time came, we did something different than the plan? Well, I think that is a perfect set up for chaos.
    Yes, the tornado in Enterprise was a direct hit… my heart breaks for the parents and students… the whole community.
    But we already knew the options, and made the best plan we could make and we followed that plan. Problaby 10,000+ other times, the plan would have worked beautifully… It did at my school… this time it didn’t in Enterprise.
    Yes, it is heartbreaking… but you have to stick to your plan in an emergency or people get scared and do things they might not otherwise do… and people get hurt… suppose some of those kids decided to be storm chasers??? There are thousands of possibilites of what a teen could do… think back to the decisions YOU made (or saw made by others) as a teen and tell me that they would ALL have done the “right” thing and directly to a safe place. That’s nice to imagine but sadly doesn’t happen in reality.
    So, having lived through a school tornado, I can tell you the kids, faculty and administrators were as prepared as anyone can possibly be. They didn’t plan for a structural failure in the wall… no one could. Possibly, the people who built the school didn’t plan for a direct hit to the school by an EF3 tornado, either… But you can’t live your life planning for every possible scenario… you’d live in a bubble… make that an UNDERGROUND bubble. 🙂

  14. Scottr says:

    I agree with Wayne’s post. I will go futher to place some truths to the timeline. Schools are paid by DAILY attendance of students. Letting out at from 12:00 and later allows the school system to still be paid for attendance days by the state. This is why the timing was all wrong. If school had let out at 11:00 more people would have had the ability to get home or there safe place. With that said. Schools are traditionally safer. I do however believe parents should be able to keep there childern at home on severe weather days. Especially days the the school system is reveiwing early dismissal anyway. This “check-out”, or “Absenece” should not could toward the pupils attendance record.
    I do work everyday. I work to supply for my children. I will take off to protect my children. Some people may not have that option, but everyone has family or friends. Maybe it time to make a plan in your household should school let out early in your area. Make this plan now, not the day of any storms.
    The other point to make is Alabama state law. Some court cases against the state are setteled out of court to quelch publice knowledge and embarrasment of the case. Any case that comes from a citzen to the court is suject for dismissal. Why you ask? The sate still has “The King is God” laws on the book. It is illigal to sue state or state officials acting on behalf of the state. This was learned years ago when my sister was run over by a school bus. Even the 19-year-old driver that looked back then drove off was not liable crimally or civicly. Go figure. The point here is to say sueing the school system for anything would be frugal.
    I will also say that sueing the school system in this case would be adding fuel to the fire. The adminitrators in Enterpise are human. They did see a need to dismiss school. The “pop-up” nature of this system did not allow all students or teachers the time to get home. With that the staff of the school did the next best thing. They did bring everyone they could notify inside the building. The administrators being human will question there decisions already. Right or wrong that is human nature.
    Placing the facts here, lives were saved that day. Can we better plan in the future? Probably so. We should still support the administrators and staff that was at the same risk as all the students in the school.

  15. Angela says:

    Spend less time on here debating what should have happened and go volunteer. But if you must sit here and debate, at least get your facts straight. Parents could check their students out at any time, and some had already been checked out… some were still trying to check them out. The official release was delayed because administrators didn’t want to send kids out during a tornado warning. Parents always have the ability to keep their kids home if they think going to school is dangerous. The fact that more people (both in the school and out in the community) weren’t killed is a miracle. Just thank God it wasn’t your child who was killed and stop looking for someone to blame.

  16. Brian says:

    For all of you people who say that we would have gone home that day, I just have this to say for you, Ya Right! Guess what, me and 5 other friends were about to carpool down to churches chicken when we were released. Me and my friends would not have been the only ones going around town. Tornado sirens in enterprise had become what death threats are to celebritys, something that happens so often without consequence that you just ignore it. You say that if it had been an f5 tornado then the concentration of students would had lead to a higher death toll. Thats true, but even then statistically the high school would be the safest place to be. What are the odds that in the entire coffee county area a tornado would tear threw a few small acres that a high school occupied. By early dismissal and dispersion of the student you have just guaranteed quite a few deaths, especially considering that the tornados path took it through residential ares where many students lived. You people only know what the media is telling you right now wich doesnt even scratch the surface of the nuances involved in what happend.

  17. Brian says:

    I just read waynes post.

    You moron! of course no one else was killed in our area, the tornado hit mostly our residential districts. no one was even in those areas! We where at school, our parents were at work!

  18. Ashley says:

    I some how came a cross this article and agreead that keeping the kids in school was the best choice. I attended Enterprise High for my junior and senior years of hight school 2004-2006. I know what it is like to have the routin drills. many of times i found it point less. However I do know that any time we where let out of school early I would just wonder around the school with friends or go to other place such as Wal Mart or other place that was not home where I should have gone. I was and still am a single mother and know how important it is to be with your children in times of danger. However I was a mother during my time at Enterprise and still feel that being forced to stay at school during the time of the tornado was the best choise for everyone.

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