School Construction Changes in Alabama After Storms

By DEANGELO McDANIEL | June 11, 2013

The large amount of rebar and concrete on the construction site at Hatton High is not there by accident.

Instead, it represents a change in how schools are constructed in Alabama.

Three years after eight students died when a tornado hit Enterprise High School in 2007, the Alabama Building Commission started requiring “mandatory safe spaces” in new K-12 public schools.

“Essentially what you have to do if the school is totally new is include storm shelters that can survive a major tornado,” said Brian Moore, of Martin & Cobey Construction in Athens.

The company supervised construction of Hartselle’s $44 million high school that opened in March.

The 280,000-square-foot facility has three storm shelters designed to withstand 250 mph winds and are within five minutes of any room in the school.

The shelters are integrated with the school, some doubling as classrooms, halls and corridors.

But if storms approach, there are areas school leaders can send students and shut doors, giving them the protection Moore believes all schools should have.

“I know it would be expensive and in some cases impossible to retrofit schools, but this is something we need to think about,” he said.

Dirk and Kathy Strunk’s daughter, Katie, was one of the eight students killed at Enterprise High on March 1, 2007.

Kathy, who now teaches at Decatur High, was about 10 feet from the wall that collapsed on her daughter and several other students.

“We were in a hall in the middle of the school,” she said. “I always thought a hall in a school was one of the safest places to be during a tornado.”

The Strunks said they are pleased that schools now are more conscious of providing safe places for students.

Enterprise, like most schools in the state, was mostly a collection of older buildings constructed in stages.

The EF4 tornado collapsed parts of the school’s science wing, the hallway where Katie and Kathy Strunk were and a new gym.

Dirk Strunk, a teacher and head football coach at Priceville, will move to the new Priceville High planned to open in 2015.

“We will have a storm shelter in this school,” Morgan County Superintendent Billy Hopkins said.

Because they are not totally new schools, the facility at Hatton and a cafeteria planned in Moulton were not required to have storm shelters.

Superintendent Heath Grimes said he “re-thought” the projects after an EF5 tornado killed 14 in Lawrence County on April 27, 2011.

The system acquired two hazardous mitigation grants to help put storm shelters in both facilities.

The board received $1.5 million from FEMA to help cover the $2.4 million project at Hatton that includes four classrooms, a special education room, science lab and administrative offices.

The shelter is a hallway in the middle of the school that will be surrounded by steel- and concrete-reinforced blocks.

In Moulton, the board is constructing a cafeteria that will serve middle and elementary students.

FEMA is providing a $1.24 million grant for the project, estimated to cost $2.3 million.

The old Hatton school was constructed in 1936 and the two block lunchrooms in Moulton are more than 50 years old.

“We were fortunate that all our kids were home on April 27, but you never know when that day will come that we can’t get them home,” Grimes said.

That situation happened in Oklahoma on May 20 when an EF5 tornado reduced Plaza Towers Elementary School to a 10-foot pile of rubble.

The tornado, which carved a 17-mile path, killed 24, including seven students in the school.

The tornado that hit Enterprise was the first to kill students at a school since 1990. The city rebuilt a $86 million school equipped with FEMA-rated storm shelters.

The mandate for storm shelters in new schools became law in 2010, about six months after Hartselle broke ground on its new high school. It was effective immediately, which meant Hartselle had to include storm shelters.

“The new law is a good thing,” Moore said.

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