Ark. Governor Urges Schools To Install Tornado-safe Rooms

Tuesday, May 6th 2008, 9:44 am
By: News On 6

Just before the tornado sirens sounded, school superintendent Floyd Marshall got the warning from police - a twister was coming right for the town's elementary and high school.

But Marshall had a weapon of his own: Unlike most other schools in Arkansas, the two Carlisle schools have specially designed interior hallways - dubbed tornado-safe rooms - where 750 students cowered until the storms passed by Friday.

"You may never need it, but that one time that you do that you don't have it, it's something you can't recover from," Marshall said.

The tornado eventually veered away from the shared campus of the schools at the last moment, but Gov. Mike Beebe acknowledged the importance of the rooms on a visit to the city Monday.

"I'd like to see them everywhere. I'd like to see them as much as possible," Beebe said. "But at this juncture, we're not in a position to mandate them everywhere, unless you have the money to be able to give them to everybody."

Julie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education, acknowledged that many schools throughout the state do not have the safe rooms. She said officials do not keep a count of how many schools have them.

State law requires schools to hold tornado drills no less than four times per year during the months of September, October, January and February. However, state laws only suggest building the safe rooms.

But the state Legislature has set aside $456 million for a program to build and repair crumbling schools across Arkansas. Beebe said districts in line for the funding likely could use that money, or money set aside in federal government grants, to build the safe rooms.

"It doesn't take a lot of encouragement because most of the school officials have been really conscious and proactive about building either safe rooms or hardened areas of their school buildings," Beebe said.

Most of the storms, which meteorologists now say included 11 confirmed tornadoes, came Friday morning while schools were in session. That's unusual since afternoon and evening storms often offer the best conditions for tornados to form.

The storms killed seven people in Arkansas. Beebe and other state officials flew by helicopter to see damage Monday in Carlisle, Earle and Greers Ferry. The governor recounted seeing a pontoon boat wrapped around a tree and other devastation on his trip.

Maj. Gen. Bill Wofford, commander of the Arkansas National Guard, said about 60 guard members remained on duty Monday in tornado-damaged areas. He said the Guard would begin a slow drawdown Wednesday as police take over security.

Meanwhile, officials continue to assess damage throughout the state since an outbreak of severe weather began Feb. 5, said David Maxwell, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. As floodwaters continue to recede in eastern Arkansas and the possibility of more storms loom later in the week, Maxwell acknowledged a final tally of the destruction remains elusive.

"The expenses will go on for months and months and months," he said.