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Get the Point: Time has come to harden our schools

May 28, 2013

By David Hughes

One of the earliest memories as a student at East Side Elementary School in Benton (now named for my principal, Angie Grant) was being told how we could protect ourselves in case of an atomic bomb blast. The old “duck and cover” jingle still resounds in my head as well as remembering how we were expected to hunker under our desks and get into a little ball.
Later, we learned in the event of a tornado bearing down on our school we should rush to the hallway and assume the same position, but “hold onto the wall” and we would all be safe.
Looking at these related activities with the eyes and intelligence of age, we now know the former was plain malarkey and the latter was just kidding ourselves if a really bad storm hit, especially with today’s minimalist school construction techniques … less brick, more space.
It’s 3 a.m. Tuesday morning as I sit down to write this week’s tome. God help me, I just couldn’t sleep after watching the horror show coming from Moore, Okla. I covered twisters of all types in my 40-odd years as a journalist and NEVER saw the level of destruction those poor folks are enduring.
Perhaps the closest was when I was a freshman at Arkansas State University in 1968 and a tornado ripped through Jonesboro, killing a lot of folks and destroying major public facilities. My date and I were blown off the road the night before as I tried to get her home before it hit.
The hand of God was on us and we were uninjured by the winds. But as day dawned the next morning, the grisly job of finding some of the dead in trees began. Those images are indelibly seared into my mind.
But never in my life did I have to face as a reporter or photographer what those men and women do today. Many of them broke down on the air like Walter Cronkite did at the passing of JFK in Dallas when they described pulling third graders from that elementary school. Many described it as akin to covering a war zone.
Perhaps the closest many can compare it to is 9/11 when hundreds died so suddenly on that awful day.
One of the big differences today is when a national tragedy, such as Moore, strikes we all have a place to “vent” if we wish – on social media – and the “woulda, coulda, shoulda’s” are getting started with a vengence. Frankly, I think some of them make sense, but as a realist I wonder as the days move farther away from May 20, 2013 will our outrage and concern cool as other subjects grab that eternal news cycle?
One of the first promoted ideas was make sure every school has a “safe room” for the faculty and students. Others felt requiring all school buildings to have a basement and that be used as a safe room. It could also double as a storage area if needed.
Others suggest it might be less expensive to purchase either Fiberglass or metal underground enclosures. I recently watched a series on TV about so-called “Doomsday Preppers” who spend about $50,000 for such enclosures just for their relatively small families. Granted, they were intended for an extended stay, not just to wait out a storm.
Personally, I favor repurposing existing stuff, but further research found my ideas might look good at the get-go, but not so good in the long run.
My Uncle Don down in the southwestern corner of the state is a very handy man and several years ago he purchased an old railroad box car, dug one heck of a hole in the pasture next to the house, covered it with dirt and fixed it up really nice inside. Lots of room; why not stack a few of those together and voila! You have instant safety for the kids and recycle something that seems to be sitting around everywhere.
The question is it structurally strong enough? What is the cost to rust-proof the thing? And, finally is it practical?
I also researched using some of the millions of shipping containers clogging up our ports, but I found they were not engineered for the weight of the dirt which would be put on top of them. The corners carry all the weight because they are stacked on deck and it holds.
There are all kinds of things which will NOT work without a hassle; why can’t a major corporation like Google or General Motors offer a tax-free prize of several million dollars to the first folks who could come up with a viable and relatively inexpensive plan to create safe havens in our schools for children and perhaps even the neighborhood?
Ongoing construction on schools – especially in the Tornado Belt – should be suspended until safe rooms can be designed and built as part of the initial construction of school buildings.
I also challenge architects to design inexpensive ways to incorporate safe rooms into any home that is built from this point on, as well as inexpensive above or below ground rooms that would be safe from any tornadic winds.
Finally, I respectfully suggest that school board patrons demand their school boards don’t spend another dime on luxurious sports facilities of any kind until every school in their district can be a safe place in a storm.

David Hughes is a former resident of Saline County. His column appears each Thursday in The Saline Courier.

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