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Natural Hazard Vulnerabilities & Planning

Because our children spend a majority of their time at schools, we often perceive these buildings as safe and should inherently possess good resistance to natural hazards.

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Because our children spend a majority of their time at schools, we often perceive these buildings as safe and should inherently possess good resistance to natural hazards. However, school buildings can actually be more vulnerable to damage caused by natural hazards than other types of buildings. Factors contributing to these vulnerabilities include:

  • Decades-old-buildings built prior to the adoption of building codes that include modern design requirements for natural hazard loading
  • Competing needs and budgetary issues which may lead to a lack of funding for upkeep or upgrades to existing facilities
  • Large assembly rooms (e.g. performance halls and gyms) which are particularly prone to collapse in an extreme wind event
  • Though often designated as a community emergency shelter, schools have not been designed or constructed to standards to ensure they are occupiable after a disaster occurs

What Natural Hazards Does Your School Face?
Natural hazards include earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, high winds, snowstorms, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires. In the Midwest, we deal with only a few of these.  This series focuses on extreme wind events including:

  • High Winds – Straight-line winds can occur anywhere and at any time.
  • Tornadoes – The most destructive tornadoes consistently affect the Midwest and typically occur during the late spring and early fall with only a few minutes of warning. They vary in severity from EF0-EF5:
    • Weaker EF0 to EF2 tornadoes account for 96% of all tornadoes; these tornadoes can damage most schools, but they present a lower risk to life safety than a stronger tornado.
    • EF3 and stronger tornadoes can cause significant damage to a school building and have a greater risk of injury or death for building occupants.

What is Your School Safety Strategy to Address the Natural Hazards?

Natural disasters are inevitable; however, the impact of the disaster can be lessened when a strategy is in place.

FEMA recommends a comprehensive approach to reducing risk in schools through the framework of a School Emergency Operations Plan.

Focus on Prevention, Protection and Mitigation
Have a proactive and comprehensive approach focused on prevention, protection, and mitigation BEFORE the natural hazard event takes place. Key steps include:

  • Assess existing building vulnerabilities
  • Identify mitigation options
  • Develop an implementation plan to prioritize, phase and fund those mitigation options
  • Incorporate this information into your school district’s master planning so these needs (which can be difficult to address in an existing building) may be incorporated in future additions or new building construction

When addressing tornadoes and high winds, Shive-Hattery can help you:

  • Evaluate your existing building and identifying obvious structural damage or deficiencies
  • Determine your Best Available Refuge Areas (BARA)
  • Recommend and design cost-effective mitigation options and assist with prioritizing them
  • Design storm shelters in new construction
  • Master planning to incorporate storm safety in your future capital improvements to optimize your learning environment

Follow our Extreme Wind Event biweekly-series intended to help walk you through identifying vulnerabilities and opportunities to improve safety: