“The teacher herded some of the children into a closet," said Wheeler. "She shielded Wheeler’s son with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the school roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it literally sucked the glasses off kids’ faces. She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down.”
Of course we all know by now that not every family in Moore, Okla., encountered such a miracle as we hear the news of nine deaths involving children, seven of which were in the rubble that was once the Plaza Towers Elementary School left behind by the EF5 tornado. Still there were countless stories of bravery among the staff and students of the school. Stories of students doing everything they were asked by their teachers to put them in the safest position possible in the eye of one of the most powerful tornadoes to ever touch ground in our country. Stories of teachers found lying on top of children, using the last shelter they had to offer – their own bodies – to protect their students. Yes, the fact that anyone walked out of the scene left behind by the storm is truly a miracle.
In the Newstribune.com article Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, shared the sometimes hard to grasp truth. “When you talk about any kind of safety measures…it’s a mitigating measure, it’s not an absolute; there’s not a guarantee that everyone will be totally safe,” he said.
Moore School District Superintendent Susan Pierce added that teachers and administrators put their well-rehearsed crisis plan into action as the tornado approached. But she suggested that there are limits to what people can do in the face of such a powerful storm. “Safety is our main priority,” she said. “We monitored the weather throughout the day and when it was time to shelter, we did just that.”
I am sure that the well-rehearsed and implemented plans saved many of the lives of staff and students at Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary Schools. And while it is important to do everything humanly possible in the face of such threats, as Director Albert Ashwood indicated, no amount of prevention is going to ensure absolute safety in circumstances like an EF5 tornado.
In the R-7 School District we too have safety as a primary focus. After the tornado that hit closer to home in Joplin, Mo., two years ago we initiated a complete review of our safety measures as they relate to “shelter in place.” Using FEMA guidelines we worked with consultants to review emergency plans and to scrutinize our buildings and the designated shelter areas to ensure that in the event of a crisis like a tornado we were putting staff and students in the safest areas available.
In addition to these reviews of our physical capacity to protect staff and students, we ask our schools to regularly rehearse their emergency protocols so that there is increased awareness and they become second nature when real crisis hits. Of course I am sure that they have done the same in Moore, Okla., to prepare for a day like Monday. Like Superintendent Pierce said, they did everything right. But sometimes in a crisis of this nature, when you have done all you can and are at the mercy of something as out-of-your-control as an EF5 tornado, like parent David Wheeler said, you need a miracle.
I pray every day for the safety of our staff and students, for our community. It is that small part of my emergency operations plan that you won’t find in any of our emergency procedures manuals. As we wrap up what has been another amazingly successful school year in the R-7 School District, I want to thank the teachers, administrators and support staff for the many miracles I’m sure they have caused and witnessed in the lives of students over the course of the year. I’m sure 8-year-old Gabriel Wheeler would agree that they are a true blessing.
Thanks for all each of you do for the children of the R-7 School District. You send us great kids, and in turn, we expect greatness from ourselves on their behalf. Hug your children…heck, hug their teacher while you are at it, too. Have a great summer and…stay safe!