NORTH TEXAS (CBS11 I-TEAM) – On December 26, 2015, with a massive storm brewing outside, Delores and Jeffrey English sat inside the AMC Theater in Garland. Their phones were turned off and the outside world was tuned out. They had settled into watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
But about an hour into the movie, the manager of the theater came in, flipped on all the lights and turned off the sound.
“You’ll have to evacuate the building, “ Jeffrey said the manager explained to everyone..
“There is imminent danger of a tornado. We are evacuating the building,” said the manager according to Delores.
The Englishes headed out to their car when they noticed some young kids on cell phones. They appeared stranded. The Englishes say they assume the boys were trying to reach their parents to come pick them up.
“These guys were standing out in the rain, not knowing that the tornado was only a mile away, “ said Jeffrey.
“They could have been picked up by a storm and killed.” Delores talked about watching them stand there with nowhere to go. “I should have said, ‘Go back into the theater.’ “
In hindsight, the Englishes say everyone should have gone back inside the theater. “You’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of people that were put out on the street.”
Hours later, they learned just two exits away, eight people died driving on the George Bush Turnpike in that storm.
“It would have been much smarter if people had been in the inner hallways and the men’s and ladies’ rooms,” said Jeffrey.
Delores sees an even bigger concern. “Every business should have a safety plan.”
So, the I-Team wanted to know if every business has a safety plan. And, is an “evacuation” part of it?
The I-Team reached out to a dozen public places- four popular North Texas theater chains and eight local shopping centers- all places you or your children could be when the next tornado hits.
Not one of the businesses provided us an actual copy of its severe weather emergency policy. Four of the shopping centers (Stonebriar Centre, The Parks at Arlington, Hulen Mall and the Dallas Galleria) refused to provide any information.
A statement from the Galleria called the information “proprietary” even though the Galleria’s fire plan is available for all customers to request and review according to a sign you will find by the mall elevators.
So the I-Team went inside the malls to talk to employees and security guards.
One employee inside a store at Hulen Mall told us she “had no idea what the plan was.” An employee working in a store at Stonebriar Centre told us, “I’m not sure. No one has ever told me what to do if severe weather strikes.
Only half of the malls we visited had signs directing us to shelters. The shopping centers that have “tornado shelter” or “storm shelter” signs prominently displayed near doors include Ridgmar Mall, The Parks at Arlington, Stonebriar Centre, and Collin Creek Mall.
Although the businesses would not send us their actual policies, North Park Center, Firewheel Town Center, Ridgmar Mall and Collin Creek Mall did send the I-Team statements describing how they would protect customers if a storm hits. (below)
A security guard at Collin Creek showed us the tunnels where customers take cover explaining that “you can’t leave” during a storm. Another security guard at The Parks at Arlington described a similar plan. “We have a tornado shelter on either side of the mall.”
Brian Schultz is the founder of Studio Movie Grill. He told us his team reassess its emergency plans every year. And this year, the theater chain is paying close attention to the happenings of the day after Christmas. “That is an example of how we can react and maybe we will get some examples of what others have done wrong so we can push the point home even closer.”
Regal Cinemas and Cinemark have several north Texas theaters. The I-Team repeatedly tried to reach them by phone and email. We even visited Cinemark’s headquarters in Plano asking for the spokesperson; however, neither Cinemark nor Regal responded to our requests to see their plans.
AMC sent us this statement saying it would send customers to a “designated tornado shelter area *within*the theater.” But that is not what the Englishes or the manager of Firewheel AMC say happened on December 26, 2015.
We returned to the Firewheel AMC where we found the manager who says he was there on December 26, 2015. “I’m aware of the evacuation, yes ma’am,” the manager told the I-Team. He told us he was the supervisor who evacuated the theater; however, he would not explain why the customers were evacuated. Nor would he tell us if it was the “right call.”
He sent us back to AMC headquarters which sent us another statement “the manager evacuated guests ‘due to the lack of severity of the storm in that area….’ ” (full statement below)
But, AMC also told the I-Team it “used this experience as an opportunity to remind all… Of our theaters about AMC’S procedures for…tornado warnings.”
The Englishs hope it’s a message to all businesses.
“Texas is a tornado alley,” said Jeffrey. “There should be a plan.” Delores repeatedly said all businesses need a severe weather policy. “It should be posted so anyone that wishes to read it can in a public place.”
CBS 11 Chief Meteorologist Larry Mowry and the National Weather Service provide the following advice if you are caught in a public place and/or outdoors during a tornado warning:
1. Pay attention to the weather and know ahead of times if storms are possible.
2. Look around for a safe place- similar to where you would choose at home. For example– a closet or a bathroom.
3. A basement or the lowest floor of the building is the safest.
4. If an underground shelter is not available, move to the interior room and crouch down close the floor.
5. Get under any sturdy piece of furniture and use blankets, pillows and/or clothing to protect yourself from flying debris.
6. Always stay away from windows.
1. Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter.
2. If your vehicle is hit by flying debris while you are driving, pull over and park.
3. Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat or other cushion if possible.
4. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Your choice of whether to stay in your car should be driven by your specific circumstances. Your best choice remains getting to a secure building with a basement or safe room.
5. If you find yourself outside or in a car with a tornado approaching and you are unable to get to a safe shelter, you remain at risk whether you stay in your car or seek shelter in a depression or ditch, both of which are last resort options that provide little protection. The safest place to be is in an underground shelter, basement or safe room.
***For more information on tornado safety, go to the National Weather Service.
Here are the complete statements sent to the CBS 11 I-Team:
North Park Center
“The safety of our customers is our highest priority. In the event of inclement weather, such as during the tornadoes experienced in North Texas this month, the NorthPark Center security team directs customers to protected areas and away from windows, including down back hallways and inside our anchor stores. In addition to direct communication, and depending on the nature of the situation, NorthPark Center may utilize its mall-wide speaker communication system and alarm system to notify guests of the situation and to advise them on how best to proceed for their safety.”
Firewheel Town Center
“Firewheel Town Center plays an integral role in the community, and the safety and security of area residents and visitors is of utmost importance. Through continued efforts to increase shopper safety in the face of severe weather, Firewheel Town Center is a National Weather Service designated “StormReady” shopping center. The certification recognizes the shopping center for its preparedness to handle all types of severe and potentially life-threatening weather situations through communications infrastructures, community outreach and hazardous weather training. As a donation site for Garland families affected by recent tornadoes, we are not only prepared, but also eager to assist within the community in the instance of inclement weather.”
Collin Creek Mall
“In summary, each retailer is provided with an Emergency Response Guide and specific policies vary depending on the type of storm and level of weather advisory. For example, when a tornado ‘watch’ level advisory is issued, security personnel promptly inform all retailers. If the advisory is upgraded to ‘warning’ status, security personnel promptly advise the retailers’ staff, who are directed to lock up their stores and move to the back hallways. Security also promptly begins moving patrons to the back hallways, which are designated storm shelters.
During the December 2015 storms, we received a number of complements concerning the professional and quick manner in which security personnel responded.”
“Ridgmar Mall places a high priority on communicating with guests and shopping center employees when inclement weather is likely. We take a proactive approach with an established plan when warnings about threatening weather conditions are received. Ridgmar Mall has designated areas, clearly marked with Storm Shelter signs, available for sheltering in place until the situation has abated. The mall property team is prepared to quickly enact shelter plans using multiple communication methods to alert all persons visiting and working in the shopping center.”
Stonebriar Centre/Parks At Arlington Mall/Hulen Mall
“Thank you for your inquiry. The safety and security of our customers is always our top priority. All of our malls have a customized public safety program that entails different measures for various scenarios. We do not share specific plans, but please know the safety and security of our shoppers is our top priority every day.”
“Thank you for reaching out to Galleria Dallas regarding your story. While we do have a very intensive weather plan and process for Galleria Dallas, the information is considered proprietary and unable to be shared.”
“When a tornado warning is issued, theatre teams stop the movies, inform guests of the weather situation, and evacuate guests and associates to a designated tornado shelter area within the theatre or building (in some cases when a theatre is attached to a mall, it may be another place in the mall) until the warning is lifted. Guests who are unable to complete their movie are provided a pass to return. When a thunderstorm warning or tornado watch is issued, guests are informed before the show of the weather situation and that the theatre will remain operational unless the weather situation escalates. Guests who do not wish to stay are issued a pass to return.”
Regarding the December 26 evacuation:
“At AMC Firewheel, the general manager assessed the situation and determined that because the tornado activity was reported as being a good distance south of the theatre, and due to the lack of severity of the storm in that area, as well as the potential for flash flooding later in the evening and recent tragedies due to flash flooding, the immediate evacuation of the building would best ensure the safety of guests and associates. We’ve used this experience as an opportunity to remind all of our theatres about AMC’s procedures for severe weather and tornado warnings. In the days following the tornado, the team from AMC Firewheel joined with other AMC theatre teams in Dallas to go into the community for a day of community service to help clean up and remove debris in the city of Rowlett.”
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