Chicago-area schools built to keep students safe in severe weather

May 21, 2013 (WHEATON, Ill.)

A school basement would be the preferred option, but most schools don't have basements, and even if they do, how do you move a large population of students into the basement in an expeditious fashion?

The reality is that no school is tornado-proof, but schools can be built stronger. That has been the practice for a generation in Plainfield.

It was the most powerful tornado in Illinois history. Twenty-nine lives were lost, most of them in Plainfield, where the high school was flattened. August 28, 1990. That very day architect Cliff Bender happened to be meeting with Plainfield school officials to talk about construction of a new elementary building. Then the storm hit.

"It happened so fast," said Bender. "Teachers slid under their desks. My partner and I went through the door following the superintendent, but after that it was mayhem, and it was over."

The experience gave the architect added perspective, and the schools his firm has designed since -- some 28 of them -- are equipped with steel-rebar-enforced walls, and many of the building corridors are curved or have wing walls next to the outside doors.

"Not all hallways are built the same," said DuPage County Emergency Management's David Gervino. "Not all schools are built the same, so each school needs to take an independent look to see what's best to keep the students safe."

Schools in Illinois are required by law to conduct tornado drills at least yearly. The message is head for the lowest windowless location in the school, preferably surrounded by load bearing walls.

"We're confident we've done what we can," Bender said. "As I said, though, that when a tornado hits like the one we went through, or the Oklahoma one, it's pretty tough to survive."

Gervino suggested tornado drills are valuable learning experiences and raise questions. For instance, What happens when the storm just before the day begins or just -- as was the case in Oklahoma – when the school day is about to end?

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