“When the wind picks up in Plainfield, people pay attention,” says Tom Hernandez, Director of Community Relations for Plainfield School District 202.
That’s an understatement for a community that 29 years ago this August was ground zero for the state’s only EF-5 tornado – the most powerful twister in history at the time, which devastated the west suburban town and left 29 people dead, including three who were killed at Plainfield High School when the building was destroyed in the 1990 storm.
“The roof lifted off the gymnasium, and the building collapsed,” Hernandez said. “This is one of those things – weather – that is unpredictable, unaccountable, and does not change.”
And it’s why his district has compiled more than 60 pages of meticulously detailed plans for exactly where every child in every classroom in every Plainfield school should go, should a tornado head their way once again. All schools regularly practice their tornado drills, and every teacher knows immediately where to seek shelter for his or her students.
“Usually it is in a hallway that does not open to the outside so there are no windows,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes it’s in a classroom -- if it’s an interior classroom.”
But as thorough as Plainfield’s plans are, they do not include a certified tornado shelter. And Plainfield is by no means alone.
More than nine out of 10 Chicago-area public schools do not have certified tornado shelters in their buildings, according to a two-month investigation by NBC 5 Investigates. Instead, nearly every local school does what Plainfield does, compiling comprehensive plans of where their kids should go and what they should do. As one school official told NBC 5 Investigates: “We’re like most schools -- hands-over-our-heads-in-the-hallway.”
That includes all 500-plus buildings in the Chicago Public Schools system. In a written response to an inquiry by NBC 5, CPS said, “In regards to storm shelters, the District does not have any storm shelters.”
But for a slowly-growing number of schools, things are now different. Starting in 2015, Illinois state law requires newly-constructed schools – and schools that are going through major renovations of more than 50 percent of their floor space – to construct tornado shelters in their buildings that meet the minimum requirements of the International Code Council and the National Storm Shelter Association. So how many schools might that be? NBC 5 Investigates filed public records requests with more than four hundred public school districts in the Chicago area, including northwest Indiana, to see which schools have these certified shelters.
Again, only schools newly built or extensively remodeled since 2015 are required by law to have these shelters. And – indeed – NBC 5 Investigates found that virtually the only local schools that have these storm-proof shelters are the new ones. We got responses from 264 local school districts, overseeing a total of 1,728 school buildings. But only 16 of those buildings – fewer than one in 100 – have certified tornado shelters.
One is the brand new Sunset Ridge School in north suburban Northfield, where the middle school’s performing arts wing – housing the band, orchestra and choir – is also a heavy-duty, certified concrete shelter designed to survive an EF-5 tornado and even a missile strike, according to Dr. Ed Stange, superintendent of schools for Sunset Ridge School District 29.
“Everything in terms of the structure of this building was designed and tested by shooting a two-by-four out of a cannon at a certain mile an hour, to assure that the windows, the wall structure, the ceiling, would all be able to withstand any kind of flying debris in case of a tornado,” Dr. Stange said.
He said the shelter has its own water supply, air exchange system, bathrooms and showers – and there’s room inside for everybody.
“It was an excellent opportunity to incorporate a state mandate into a really forward-thinking school,” said Leanne Meyer-Smith, Vice President of Wight and Company, Sunset Ridge’s architect. She says they made sure to include windows, so that the area feels more like a music room than it does a bunker.
But Meyer-Smith also acknowledges the advantages of starting with a clean slate like Sunset Ridge, versus the challenges for the vast majority of Chicago-area schools, like in Plainfield, which are already built.
“It’s technically impossible to structurally outfit existing space that wasn’t specifically built to meet the FEMA requirements of the code for a storm shelter,” Meyer-Smith said.
Plainfield’s Hernandez agrees.
“If the law required us to retrofit our thirty schools, it would cost somewhere between $3 million and $7 million per building, to add the space that the law now requires” for new construction, he said. That amounts to a total of anywhere between $90 million and $350 million, to equip Plainfield’s entire district with the type of tornado-proof facilities seen at Sunset Ridge.
NBC 5 Investigates has compiled an interactive map with the results of our survey of 401 Chicago-area school districts. You can search for school districts in your area, to see if any of their buildings are equipped with a certified tornado shelter. You can search the map here.
And NBC 5’s own Chief Meteorologist, Brant Miller, toured the shelter at Northfield’s Sunset Ridge School, and has some advice for every parent on what to tell their children, in case of a tornado. Watch his advice below.