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In a file photo from 2008, a huge tornado funnel cloud touches down in Orchard, Iowa. The powerful tornado that ripped through Oklahoma Monday, killing 24 people, has focused attention on the safety of school children during violent storms. Lori Mehmen | Associated Press

Bemidji, other districts, required to have plans in place for possible tornado

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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

ST. PAUL — The powerful tornado that ripped through Oklahoma Monday, killing 24, has focused attention on the safety of Minnesota school children during violent storms.

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At least seven of the dead in Moore, a suburb south of Oklahoma City, were children taking refuge in a school, according to the latest reports.

In Minnesota, schools are required to have plans in place in case a tornado strikes. And one Minnesota school destroyed by a tornado three years ago was rebuilt with twisters in mind.

By law, Minnesota schools are required to hold a variety of safety drills every year. They include five fire drills, five lockdown drills, and one tornado drill, said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Along with the tornado drill, Hovis said, schools are also required to have a crisis management plan in place that includes a response in case of a tornado.

‘Worst nightmare’

Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji School District, said local school staff all have weather radios on hand that notify them of approaching hazardous weather.

"We are constantly watching our environment," Hess said.

Actions taken depend on the severity of the warning issued — whether it be a tornado watch or warning, for example — but in the most serious cases, children are moved to interior hallways, rooms without exterior walls or windows, and moved away from rooms with long-spanned ceilings. Students assume their "tuck" positions, and teachers take attendance, he said.

"We can still have tornados up here, so we have to be really watchful," Hess said. "We have to really monitor the weather situation and make sure we’re ready to take appropriate action should anything come our way."

Hess, who has previously lived in southwest Kansas and Colorado, recalled watching three tornados on the horizon that went on to kill several people not far from his home.

"I have a very genuine and healthy respect for the power of nature," he said.

The tragedy at the elementary school in Moore was a school administrator’s "worst nightmare," Hess said.

"That was absolutely horrific, to have an F-5 tornado sweeping through the middle of town," he said. "The force, the fury that would contain, it’s horrific."

Echoing Hess, a key concern during a tornado is moving students away from anything that could become airborne, said Rick Kaufman, director of communications and emergency management for the Bloomington, Minn., school district.

"Flying glass or doors that could be broken off that create debris that could injure and kill students or staff is what you want to be concerned about," Kaufman said.

Because Minnesota schools range in age and design, the safest place in a storm can vary. It could be a basement locker room, or an interior hallway, or a bathroom.

Often students end up hunkering down in several spots.

Out of session

Wadena superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom is glad students were on summer vacation when a tornado struck Wadena High School on June 17, 2010. A few adults were in the school that day preparing for a reunion when an F4 tornado struck. They took shelter in a basement locker room.

The school, which took a direct hit, suffered major damage.

"The school was quite a well-built school," Dahlstrom said. "For that to happen, it was quite a significant tornado."

For Dahlstrom, the storm was an eye-opener. Hallways where students would have been sent if school had been in session weren’t as safe as she hoped.

"The hallways actually ended up being more like a wind tunnel, with debris," she said.

The school suffered so much damage, it had to be torn down and rebuilt.

The new $40 million school, which opened last fall, included a tornado-proof gymnasium big enough to shelter 1,200 people.

A nearly $1 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security helped pay for the construction.

Dahlstrom the walls of the new school are made of concrete one foot thick. Its roof can stand up to the strongest tornado, an F5.

"You would never know when you drive up that it’s a separate building constructed to take 250 mph winds," she said.

Dahlstrom said more Minnesota schools should consider tornado proof buildings, but notes that cost and space are often the main barriers.

Article by Tim Post of MInnesota Public Radio. Pioneer staff writer Bethany Wesley contributed to this report.

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