After the educators at Plaza Towers Elementary School learned that a raging tornado was headed their way Monday, they had few options. The decades-old building -- one of five schools hit in the area -- didn't have a "safe room," or a shelter deemed safe for storms of that size.
All hell broke loose. The roof caved in. Teachers carried students out. "They literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out," Oklahoma State Police Sergeant Jeremy Lewis said, according to Reuters. "They pulled kids out from under cinder blocks without a scratch on them." Tornado drills in Oklahoma traditionally train kids to leave their classrooms, head to the hallways, and duck for cover in fetal position.
According to the latest counts, seven children were found dead at the school -- drowned in water.
As the tornado hit, the Moore, Okla., school evacuated fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to a nearby church, but left the children in kindergarten through third grade in place. As rescue workers dug through the rubble Tuesday, and a community searched for answers, no word had yet emerged on the reason for the split. Moore's school officials could not be reached for comment, and its website was still offline at press time.
"There might be a valid reason why they would disperse some students but not others," said Mayer Nudell, an adjunct professor of security management at Webster University in Missouri. "Perhaps they have some reason. But nothing occurs to me."
The uncertainty surrounding the events at Plaza Towers left observers with broader questions. When schools are warned that danger is near, administrators have a choice to make: Evacuate? Or stay?
The answer, sources say, isn't as clear-cut as most schools would like. "When to evacuate and when to shelter in place are based on a situational analysis, good communication with first responders," said Victoria Calder, director of the Texas School Safety Center. "Each situation has to be taken on a case-by-case basis." On Sept. 11, 2001, she said, the principal of a small elementary school near the World Trade Center was told to remain in the school as Tower 1 fell. But she trusted her instincts, and evacuated instead -- a move that saved both the teacher and her students, since the school was obliterated when Tower 2 fell.
Calder consults with school districts across Texas for disaster preparedness. "Everyone wants to know, 'tell me exactly what to do so no one can say I didn't do exactly the right thing,' but we simply can't do that," she said. "You can never account for every eventuality. The main thing is to have a plan."
The federal government advises school districts to coordinate with other local agencies, and administration officials agree that it's hard to plan for any specific scenario. "Any particular threat or hazard in combination with other factors will determine the proper response, whether it's sheltering in place or lockdown or evacuation, or some combination of the three," David Esquith, the director for the U.S. Education Department's Office of Safe and Healthy Schools, said in an interview. "You can have the same natural hazard where under different circumstances it might be the safest thing to evacuate, or the right thing to shelter in place. There's generally no straight line between a particular hazard or threat, and the nature of the response."
Especially for tornadoes, there's precious little time between the warning and the brunt of the hit, Nudell said. "With a tornado, it's rare that you get enough warning to go anywhere," Nudell said. "Even if you got what might be a sufficient amount of warning, you couldn't be sure that you weren't sending people in harm's way because the tornado could take a turn."
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R), a Moore resident, put it this way in an interview with MSNBC-TV. "If you're in front of an F4 or an F5 [referring to tornado severity], there is no good thing to do if you're above ground," he said. "It's just tragic."
Moore's schools were planning to let their students out for summer on Thursday. Now, they're simply focused on recovery. "The school district lost all of their servers. They don't have email," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the union whose affiliate serves Oklahoma's teachers. "People are just kind of numb."