TUSCALOOSA COUNTY, Ala. (WBRC) - Sipsey Valley Middle School has been open for a little over a month. Principal Frank Kelly and his staff are working the kinks out of being in a brand new environment, but one thing he’s thankful to have is a section of the school, which looks like a normal hallway until you see the signs that say it can withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour.
"Everything in this wing doubles as our safe room area,” Kelly said.
This wing is the fine arts and career tech section of the school. The glass windows are about an inch thick. The walls are reinforced with steel and concrete. Kelly was there while it was being built. He says it’s definitely a safe place to be during severe weather.
"The reinforced walls with concrete and the steel. It gives you a much easier feeling whenever you hear that call and you have to make that call for everyone to go to this area. It makes you feel a lot safer,” Kelly said.
This school is one of eight out of 34 schools in the Tuscaloosa County School System that has a new certified storm shelter. Other schools with new storm shelters include Big Sandy Elementary, Brookwood High School, Buhl Elementary, Holt Elementary, Hold High School, Lloyd Wood Education Center, and Sipsey Valley High School. After the tornado that devastated Enterprise High School and killed several students, lawmakers decided that all schools built after 2010 must be outfitted with these storm safe rooms.
Kelly says the last thing he wants to see is another tornado demolish a school. He wishes that all schools could have a safe place like Sipsey Valley, but it comes down to money. Shelters can cost hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.
"In many cases, the safest place is going to be that school building. It’s a commercial building,” WBRC Chief Meteorologist J-P Dice said.
When it comes to planning for severe weather, a lot of school districts in our area tend to release schools early. Dice says some school systems should maybe rethink that.
"In many cases, some of these students are heading out to manufactured homes, mobile homes, they’re in transit. They are going from point A to point B. There’s no perfect solution, but the schools tend to be a sturdier place. A lot of times schools are already designated shelters,” Dice said.
When it comes to money, some states like Oklahoma and local governments there have opted to raise taxes to help build school storm shelters or build them through public-private partnerships. That took place after an EF-5 tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma.