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Massive Tornado Changed How Texas Town Builds Schools

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Joel Thomas
Joel is an Emmy Award winning journalist with more than 15 year...
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JARRELL, TX (CBS 11 NEWS) - May 27, 1997 is a day Jarrell, Texas will never forget.  An EF5 tornado three-quarters of a mile wide nearly wiped the small, Central Texas town off the map. Twenty seven people died. The tragedy is remembered not just in a memorial on the empty site where a vibrant neighborhood once stood, but in the way the town decided to build its new schools.

“And it was a real priority for the community to have a safe room or safe rooms if something happened,” said Jarrell Superintendent Bill Chapman as walked down the colorful hallways of Jarrell Elementary. “And so all the interior rooms in this building, our high school and our middle school which is under construction, will have these concrete reinforced middle rooms.”

The classrooms are arranged in two circles with their doors facing into a common hallway. The idea is if a tornado is approaching, the children can be hustled away from the windows in the outer circle across the hall into the inner circle of rooms. The inner circle rooms look like average classrooms, but all interior walls are reenforced with concrete. They are storm shelter grade and there is enough space for all the children to be comfortable. Even if people can’t escape the outer rooms, there’s some added protection.

“All of the windows have a protective glaze that makes it more safe if its broken or has a film to prevent that shattering,” Chapman said.

Some of the interior rooms and classes are interconnected. That way a person can flee danger on one side of the inner ‘bunker’ and escape to safety out the other side.

The shelter-in-place construction adds about a quarter of a million dollars to a school’s construction cost, Chapman said.

But in a town that’s paid a heavy price in lives, tornado protection in schools is worth it.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Chapman said. “But its nice that we have something as a barrier to the unknown.”

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