With the school year underway, hurricane season in full swing and the five-year anniversary of the historic Colorado floods approaching, CU Boulder sociology professor Lori Peek has a question for parents and school administrators:
How safe would your school be in the case of a natural disaster?
“Children are required to show up to school, and if they don’t show up they get in trouble,” said Peek, director of CU Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center. “If we are going to require that someone show up somewhere, one would assume those buildings would be safe. But in reality, many of them are not.”
Peek recently collaborated with some of the nation’s leading school safety experts to co-author the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) free guide, “Safer, Stronger, Smarter: A Guide to Improving School Natural Hazard Safety.” On September 6, she’ll offer the first in a series of free public webinars to educate stakeholders nationwide on what they can do to help protect the 50 million children who enter public elementary and secondary school buildings each weekday.
While much attention has deservedly been paid to violence-prevention in the wake of a rash of school shootings, Peek says parents and policymakers often overlook the growing threat of natural hazards.
“We are experiencing more frequent and more intense climate-related disaster events, including severe storms and floods,” she said. “Yet many of our schools were built before modern codes existed or are in places where codes and land use planning standards are not rigorous.”
The guide highlights risks posed to public K-12 school by a variety of potential disasters.
For instance, more than 6,400 schools serving 4 million students are highly vulnerable to flooding.
Thirty-nine out of 50 states are at significant earthquake risk, with Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington at “very high” risk and regions of Colorado in the “moderately high” range.
Across Washington State, about 386,000 students live in earthquake-prone areas and attend schools built before seismic construction standards were adopted statewide.
At least 190 schools on the west coast and Alaska and Hawaii are located in tsunami hazard zones, with many lacking access to safe ground that could be reached within the expected tsunami warning time.
Peek also notes that about 1,200 tornadoes occur annually in the United States, with peak season during the spring school semester. In Oklahoma, one of the most tornado-prone states with 56 schools damaged or destroyed in 2013 alone, fewer than half of public schools have a tornado shelter.
Meanwhile, the average age of public school buildings in the United States is 44 years and many are dilapidated and vulnerable.
Near misses and displaced kids
While tens of thousands of school children have been killed in natural hazard events in other countries, such deaths in the United States have been rare so far.
“There have been a lot of near misses,” she says. For instance, if the deadly 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri – which leveled several schools – had happened on a weekday, the death toll among children and school staff could have been catastrophic.
Numerous severe weather events, including floods in Louisiana and Colorado, have caused long-term closures of schools.
“More than 300,000 school aged children were displaced in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And two years after the storm, 160,000 children were still dislocated. We don’t know how many dropped out entirely,” says Peek, who co-authored a book, Children of Katrina, about the storm’s impact.
Some states have begun to enact stricter building codes or basic emergency preparedness regulations to protect children, and some districts have begun to retrofit old buildings, designate storm-safe rooms or take other measures.
“We have made progress, but just as society is marked by inequality, so are our schools,” she says. “Schools with less funding and fewer resources have been less able to take recommended protective actions.”
She encourages parents to ask who at their school is responsible for school safety, what they’re doing to assure or improve it and how the community can get involved. The new FEMA guidebook has more suggestions.
“The first step toward forward motion is to start thinking about this issue and start asking questions,” Peek said.