It took nearly two years of research and paperwork and on Thursday the construction of a tornado safe room began at Southeast Elementary School in Weir, Kansas. Cherokee Mayor Dale Thompson, McCune Mayor Don Call, and West Mineral Mayor Audrey Miller joined Weir Mayor Saundra Stricklin and Southeast Elementary School Principal Tammie Hall plus five student representatives with the ceremonial groundbreaking.
For now, like other school districts, students and staff take refuge in areas readily available. In the three story building built in 1918 they take refuge in the restrooms of a non-rated partially underground basement. Students in the south wing, built in 1993 to FEMA standards at that time, take refuge in the restrooms there.
It will take 90 to 120 days to build the safe room, meaning it will not be available for use this school year, but school officials told those attending the groundbreaking that the safety of students from the communities is a high priority and this project is aimed at providing parents peace of mind.
“We have parents who work throughout the region – Girard, Parsons, Pittsburg and Joplin, some even further – during storm season they deserve to know that their children are safe when they are in our care,” said Southeast Elementary Principal Tammie Hall.
The 46×41 safe room will cost approximately $400,000, with $285,000 of that being paid for by a federal grant.
Just to qualify for the grant the school had to show it had suitable parking. Last summer the City of Weir donated $13,000 towards a parking area that is now on the north end of the campus, and both the city and Cherokee County provided labor.
Dale Zogleman of Protection Shelters LLC from Viola, Kansas said that the inside of the safe room will look just like a classroom. Inside there will be painted sheet-rock, insulation, a dropped ceiling, two restrooms, battery backup lighting, a fire alarm system, and everything will be ADA compliant.
The elementary students will know the building as their music room, but while the inside may look normal to them once it’s complete, the elementary students will get to witness the intricate construction of a building intended to keep them safe in the event of a severe storm thanks to eight inch thick concrete and miles and miles of rebar.
“It’ll have over in excess of five miles of reinforcing steel rebar,” Zogleman said. “In the center there’ll be an 18 to 24 inch column – the footing for that column alone takes one complete truckload of cement.”
“Everything that’s going to be used in this shelter has been tested by Texas Tech Wind Science and Debris Impact Testing,” Zogleman said, who added that the design has been tested to withstand an EF-5 tornado or winds in excess of 250 to 300 miles per hour.
The safe room will be available to the community 24/7 in times of emergency and Zogleman said if power goes out for an extended period of time a generator can be hooked into a newly installed power pole that is near where the tornado safe room is being built.
To ensure the tornado safe room is built to specifications an outside agency, Terracon Consulting Engineers and Scientists of Joplin, has to continuously inspect the site.
“The first thing that they’ll do is a geophysical test, which is a sampling of the ground,” Zogleman said. “What they’ll do is ensure that the ground that we’re going to pour this mammoth, heavily-weighted structure on is not going to sink or settle. It has to test to 2,000 pounds per square foot.”
“They’ll be involved in all of the structural aspects of the building, from checking the rebar – to the right rebar size, to the right reinforcing steel size – to making sure that the overlaps are the right length,” Zogleman said. “They’ll make sure we’re putting in the right number of rebar reinforcing rods and they’ll also check the concrete.”
Principal Hall said without the help of several individuals the tornado safe room would not be a reality. She specifically noted Cherokee County Director of Emergency Management Jason Allison, Cherokee County 911 Mapping & Addressing Coordinator Wayne Elliott, USD 247 Superintendent Dr. Glenn Fortmayer, Kansas State Representative Mike Houser, USD 247 Lead Maintenance Brent Imhof, Charlie McGonigle of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, and Weir Mayor Sandra Stricklin.
“We wouldn’t have been here today without them,” Principal Hall said.