When concrete is poured over all the steel, it will be strong enough to hold up the remnants of the second floor and withstand winds upward of 250 miles per hour.
“It’s basically just a concrete shell with a brick façade,” said construction site supervisor Vernon Buchanan, gripping a bit of rebar sticking up through the concrete blocks.
Central High School of Clay County, slated to open in the fall of 2012, is one of the first schools in Alabama built since a law went into effect in July 2010 requiring any new public schools to be built with an Alabama Building Commission-approved safe space or hallway. Two shelters are being built into the $30 million high school, one in the ninth to 12th grade building and one in the seventh and eighth grade building, totaling nearly 14,000 square feet of tornado-safe area. The shelters can hold approximately 1,600 people, Buchanan said.
It’s the first tornado shelter that Buchanan has built into a school building. He and workers on the project are impressed by the amount of steel wire and rebar in the walls and on the ceiling. One worker, 56-year-old Charles Holder, said the only comparable concrete pad he’s helped build was a reinforced concrete pad meant for heavy machinery traffic.
“I ain’t never seen nothing like this,” Holder said.
The school’s shelters are built to international storm shelter standards, but reading the designs is different from seeing all the steel going into an elevated concrete pad – a stunning vision to someone in the construction business.
“This ain’t normal right here,” Buchanan said, mentioning for a third time it’s designed to withstand 250 mph winds. “Believe me, it will.”
The state Legislature passed the law in 2010 in response to the 2007 tornado that left several people dead at Enterprise High School in south Alabama. The law went into effect July 1 of last year.
No storm shelters exist in the Calhoun County school system, as the most recent school – White Plains Middle School – was built roughly five years ago, said Mike Fincher, county schools’ safety and security director. Standard procedure is to place the students in the safest position in the safest part of the structure they’re housed in, he said, adding that the county Emergency Management Agency has identified the safest part of each structure on each school’s campus.
The recently completed Oxford High School was also built without a tornado shelter, said Roy Bennett, city schools spokesman. Plans for the project and bids for construction were completed well before the law went into effect.
There is an inner hallway in the school with concrete overhead rather than a specific safe room, Bennett said. He feels confident in its safety.
It’s “phenomenal” that the new Clay County school will take such protective measures, said state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville. He recently toured the half-completed building and was pleasantly surprised to find it included two tornado shelters.
“I was just real taken aback by that. I told my wife when the storm comes we’re heading to the school,” Dial joked.
Buchanan shared the state senator’s pride in the new school, complimenting the practicality of the state requirement, particularly in light of the April 27 tornadoes that killed hundreds across Alabama.
The Central High School of Clay County falls in an area of the state where winds up to 250 mph are deemed possible, Buchanan said. Looking from the northern end of the site to the southern end, he noted that the site is an alleyway with nothing to block the wind from coming through.
“It’s the safest place to be, either right here or there,” Buchanan said with a nod at the seventh and eighth grade building across the bare courtyard. “No doubt about that.”
Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546