Storms of Destruction Pass by
May 10, 2015: Children were attending Sunday School in many churches, such as at Zion Lutheran Church in Delmont, South Dakota. About 10:45 AM, sirens began to wail loudly – a tornado touched down, heading for the town. Teachers set down their materials and led the students into the basement, where other church members were gathering. As they clustered there, the twister hit the church, severely damaging the building. No one in the church was injured.
June 22, 2015: Monday’s calm in Portland, Michigan is shattered when a tornado strikes. The 150-year-old building of the First Congregational Church is so severely damaged it has to be torn down. Across the street, the roof of the First Baptist Church is damaged. No one was inside these buildings at that time.
March 30, 2016: It is Wednesday night. Mid-week classes, services, choir rehearsals and prayer meetings are underway in many Oklahoma churches. At least three tornadoes touch down in the Tulsa area, including one which hits North Tulsa, damaging several churches. Three of them are Timothy Baptist Church, St. Paul A.M.E. Church, and Bethel Seventh Day Adventist Church, with members attending prayer meetings at Bethel and Timothy.
Seven persons at Bethel SDA crowd into a tight corner and pray while the monster storm takes a bite out of the roof. Those at Timothy are kneeling when ceiling tiles rain down on them.
May 31, 1985: An F5 tornado killed a dozen people in northeast Ohio and northwest Pennsylvania. It damaged several churches. Participants had just left a wedding rehearsal at First Church of God in Newton Falls, Ohio, when the tornado tore off parts of the roof.
As the news stories above demonstrate, tornadoes do hit churches when meetings or classes are in session.
Shelter from the Storm
Many of us have heard the song by Mosie Lister that ends with the words, “Keep me safe ‘til the storm passes by.” Whether it is a severe winter storm with heavy snow, ice and brutal cold, or a hurricane, or lightning and hail, or a tornado, we want to hide, to take refuge from damaging forces. The real question is, “Where is the best place to hide?” We in church security can help people in our churches to know where to go and how to get there.
When it comes to a tornado (also known as a whirlwind), which can literally tear apart whole buildings, where can we hide? And how can we get there? We see two examples in the news stories above of where survivors hid during the tornadoes. Zion Lutheran had a basement, so that is where they went when the sirens sounded. Bethel Adventist, like many buildings in Oklahoma, did not have a basement, so they went to an inside corner with close walls. Apparently those at Timothy Baptist did not receive the tornado warning, but since they were kneeling, they were somewhat protected. The safest places to be in a tornado are below ground, in a corner, or a small room or hallway with sturdy walls close together.
Shelter in Place
Authorities often tell people to “Shelter in place” during certain kinds of emergencies, such as with an active shooter. But when it comes to tornadoes, we need to have a shelter in place. Emergency planning for tornadoes begins with the church security assessment.
In the assessment, consider places that could serve as tornado shelters. If the assessment has already been conducted without addressing tornado shelters, have a special assessment for that purpose. Seek expert evaluation.
Many older churches were built to provide shelter from a tornado. If no place in the church building is suitable as a tornado shelter, consider installing one. Of course, it would be expensive, so rebuilding part of the interior which is used on a regular basis for church activities as a tornado shelter may justify the cost. If this is in a basement, that’s even better, and may also be less expensive, especially if it has an interior corridor.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church and School in Joplin, Missouri were rebuilt after the disastrous tornado of May 22, 2011. Interior rooms and corridors were built to withstand tornadoes enough to be survivable.
Learning by Doing
When this writer was a substitute teacher, the schools had tornado drills. When the announcement came that this was a tornado drill, students on the first floor filed into the basement.
On an upper floor the teacher opened the classroom door and stood there while pupils filed into the corridor. This took them away from windows. Also, the narrower corridor had a shorter ceiling span than the classrooms.
All out, the teacher closed the door. By this time, students who already knew the routine, were sitting on the floor, backs to the wall, knees raised. The teacher sat down too, and everyone put their heads down with hands held behind their heads to protect the head from falling or flying objects.
Nowadays they all go to the basement, since it has more protection. The hall position is used only if there is not enough time to go down two or three stories. The ideal is to get as far down as possible, preferably below ground level.
For churches planning a new building, one organization recommends using a monolithic dome. It shows several building using this, including churches.
Conducting a Drill
Even though tornadoes are more common in the Midwest and the South, they can hit in any part of the country. In the past decade there have been tornadoes in the states of Washington, California and Maine. In fact, each of the 48 adjoining states and the Canadian provinces has had tornadoes.
Just as in certain other emergency situations, such as fire and active shooters, the response must be coordinated and comprehensive. Thus it must be planned then rehearsed. In drills, everyone learns what to do by acting it out. Drills also reduce the likelihood of panic if a tornado warning is issued. This is where the church safety & security team is most involved.
Speaking about tornado warnings and advisories, a tornado watch means that conditions are right for a tornado. A tornado warning means that one has been sighted. If the warning is for your neighborhood, it is headed YOUR way. When the general weather (usually severe thunderstorms) is right for spawning tornadoes, the security team should have a member monitoring weather notifications. A weather radio is ideal for this. Members could subscribe to severe weather alerts from the weather service on a mobile phone. The alerts are specific to locality down to a few blocks, using the phone’s GPS. Some of you have already received a tornado alert this way. Whoever receives an alert notifies the security team’s lead person at that time.
Although frequent tornado drills are not necessary for schools in some areas, one each year may be advisable. In more tornado-prone regions, one just before the tornado season and two more during the season are recommended for schools.
For churches in these areas, one drill before the season is needed. It should be at a time when children are in the church, such as Sunday School, so they and their teachers know what to do and where to go. As with other drills, a tornado drill must be scheduled and announced. Emergency maps of the church building(s) show the safe places for tornadoes and how to get there.
When the safety/security team lead notifies the congregation that the drill has begun and the church’s alarm is sounded, teachers, students, worshippers, and event participants leave their places and proceed to their designated tornado shelters. Classes go together, meeting at their assigned location. There the roll is taken to assure that everyone is accounted for. After the roll, parents may take their children to their areas.
Because of the nature of the threat, all persons remain in their shelter(s) until an All Clear is sounded or announced. If this was a real tornado, it has to have passed before it is safe to leave the shelter.
Since so many people are in a small location, order is also required for dispersal. The plan for dispersion depends on the size and age composition of the congregation and the location and size of the shelter(s).
You can find several resources for planning and executing a tornado drill. Among these are local and state emergency management agencies, the local fire department, law enforcement, and emergency medical services. Other resources should include your church’s insurance provider.
Sheepdog Church Security is here to help your church to plan its response to a tornado warning and conduct tornado drills. The Online Church Security Guide has sections on How to Conduct a Security Assessment, Church Safety Team Academy, and Severe Weather Preparedness. Downloadable training packets are available at the Church Safety / Security Training Bundles Store: Church Safety Team Academy, Severe Weather Preparedness, and The Complete Church Security Training System.
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