Shelter from the Storm

Shelter from the Storm

Mother Nature’s getting increasingly restless. Hurricanes, floods and deluges abound, and they’re likely to only get worse over the next few decades. Schools already serve as shelters on a regular basis, all across the country, when these environmental disasters occur, usually in cooperation with the local Red Cross, which sweeps in with the essentials: food, cots, blankets and perhaps medical care.

All of this reflects the best about our communities, pulling together in times of need. But if we know these events are inevitable, what more can we do to prepare? How can we improve our schools’ abilities to shelter us in times of need, going beyond the basic Red Cross model? Here are a few thoughts on the matter:

Integrate staff and especially students into the emergency response command and operational structure. At very least, if crisis management teams are operating on site, bring in high school students to intern. In fact, when it comes to getting computers and wi-fi operational, the students may need to take the lead. Support interested students in building emergency response into their overall schooling or extra-curricular activities. Scouting groups and short-wave radio clubs can easily become involved. Recruit local emergency response experts to provide ongoing support and training. (Convincing teens to volunteer for the Red Cross can be challenging. Most promotional materials I’ve seen have been dry as toast, so I was impressed by the following creative approach that might have better luck drawing in a few:)

Extend services out into the community. Providing a safe haven is highly commendable, but once that’s in place, why not go further? For example, one approach being explored is the use of cargo bikes, to reach areas temporarily unavailable by motor vehicles, when fuel is scarce or roads compromised. Cargo Bike Disaster Relief Trials were launched in Oregon in October, 2013.


Design for disasters. Since storms are inevitable, it makes sense to prepare for them. A few examples:
Install back-up power sources in weather-resistant locations. If susceptible to flooding, don’t put back-up generators in basements—a surprisingly common error that shut down hospitals during Hurricane Sandy. In tornado country, basement storage may be worth the risk, but even in those locations keep the sump pumps well maintained on a regular schedule. In any case, don’t use the generator space for backup storage of anything flammable—keep the area clear.

Identify the most protected areas of the school to use for shelter. Hallways and gymnasiums often work well, due to the solid walls and insulation against outside forces. Wrestling mats provide high quality sleeping surfaces.
Store emergency supplies on site, if space can be found for this purpose. Rather than relying on the Red Cross to truck in materials on time, maintain a larder of easily preserved foods, including beans, rice and canned goods. Maintain first aid kits, fire extinguishers, flashlights and radios. Store cots and bedding if possible. If enrollment has dropped dramatically and extra space is available, offer space to the Red Cross on a semi-permanent basis.

Build in water purification. This helps avoid any problems with municipal water contamination. Make the technology transparent, to better serve as a tool for teaching and learning.

Build energy-independence into the site as much as possible. Solar panels and energy-neutral designs can make it easier to go off-grid. Many schools around the globe are enthusiastically moving in this direction, for all the right reasons: cost savings, environmental responsibility, serving as role models and providing a teaching platform. Fielding Nair International provides a wealth of examples, including the illustration at the top of this blog entry.

Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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