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Earth Sense: 9 students lost in tornado is too many

POSTED: June 1, 2013 9:37 p.m.

Among reports of the massive destruction that the May 20 tornado unleashed on the towns of Newcastle and Moore, Okla., some stories stand out as a message of encouragement. With a reported width of up to 2 miles, the massive twister destroyed two elementary schools. Nine children died at Plaza Towers Elementary.

When nearby Briarwood Elementary School collapsed, teenager Jacob Lyles ran into the rubble and proceeded to pull two trapped young girls to safety. His cellphone recorded the audio of the risky operation. Hearing this young man talk to the girls calmly, soothing them while gently removing them from the heavy debris that was holding them down, prompted a flood of emotional reactions from online bloggers. It stands to hope that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin will see fit to reward this young hero with a scholarship at a state university.

In the aftermath of this catastrophe, questions are emerging. Nine children killed while attending school is nine too many.

The standard procedures published by Oklahoma City are the same that are used in Georgia: “Go to the basement or to an inside hallway at the lowest level. Avoid places with wide-span roofs such as auditoriums, cafeterias, large hallways ... Get under a piece of furniture such as a heavy table or desk and hold on to it. Use your arms to protect your head and neck.”

Clearly, this wasn’t enough for the storm’s youngest victims. Oklahoma is the state with most tornado strikes in the world, and its capital gets more of them than any other city in the world.

This suggests that a sharp look at school building codes is needed. Clearly, construction of the current buildings wasn’t sufficiently strong for protecting the kids’ lives. In a tornado-prone area like Oklahoma City, school houses need a central, reinforced shelter that resists collapse better than regular hallways can.

News reports still are sketchy but it appears that some political factions resist construction of proper shelters, preferably underground, in Oklahoma schools. It can only be hoped that the fate of 9-year old Janae Hornsby, Sydney Angle, Emily Conatzer, Nicolas McCabe and five more school children will change their minds.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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