Before answering the question, let us consider the following information:
I. Most tornado fatalities occur in mobile homes.
Between 1985 and 2003, according to NOAA, there were a total of 1007 tornado-related fatalities in the U.S.
40 % were in mobile homes
31 % were in site-built homes
9.7 % were in vehicles
5.8 % were in churches or schools
5.3 % were outdoors
3.5 % were in businesses
4.7 % were classified as "other"
Note that although 40% of deaths were in mobile homes and 31% were in site-built homes, only 16.3 percent of residences in Alabama were mobile homes according to the U.S. Census Bureau in the year 2000.
This data suggests that 56% of people who died in their residences lived in mobile homes, while only 16.3% of the total population lived in mobile homes. The percentage of residences in Coffee County that were mobile homes was 16.4 according to city-data.com.
II. Incidents of tornado fatalities in schools are relatively rare compared to other locations.
Prior to 2007, the most recent tornado-related fatality in a school was over 16 years ago in the Plainfield, IL tornado on August 28, 1990. The Plainfield tornado killed two people at 3:30 p.m., including a science teacher who was preparing the next day’s lesson. A secretary was killed at the Plainfield District Administration building. Three other lives were lost in Plainfield at Mary Immaculate Church and School. Of the 28 fatalities in Plainfield, "seven persons died in one large apartment complex; eight, in vehicles; five, in schools; four, in houses; and two, outside. Three persons died at one high school, where greater than or equal to 10 students crouched against the only hallway wall that did not collapse and, therefore, may have been protected from fatal or severe injury," according to the CDC.
Prior to 2007, other Alabama tornadoes that caused fatalities in schools include:
March 6, 1944 - Horton, Alabama - 3:00 p.m. (1 fatality)
March 22, 1929 - Merrellton, Alabama - 11:00 a.m. (5 fatalities)
December 7, 1927 - Tunnel Springs, Alabama – 11:30 a.m. (1 fatality)
January 11, 1918 - Dothan-Cowarts, Alabama – 1:40 p.m. (8 fatalities)
February 23, 1917 - Hollins, Alabama - 3:30 p.m. (2 fatalities)
January 3, 1906 - Josie-Banks, Alabama - 11:30 a.m. (2 fatalities)
February 19, 1884 - Goshen, Alabama - 2:30 p.m. (1 fatality)
According to famed tornado historian and researcher Thomas Grazulis with the Tornado Project, the worst tornado tragedies in schools prior to the Enterprise Tornado were as follows:
Date / City, State / Rating / Number of Deaths
Mar 18, 1925 Desoto, IL F5 - 33
Mar 18, 1925 2:00 PM Murphysboro, IL F5 - 25
Feb 1, 1955 2:20 PM Commerce Landing, MS F3 - 17
Jan 4, 1917 11:00 AM Vireton, OK F3 - 16
Nov 9, 1926 2:23 PM La Plata, MD F3 - 14
Apr 21, 1967 3:50 PM Belvidere, IL F4 - 13
May 2, 1929 12:55 PM Rye Cove, VA F2 - 13
Mar 22, 1897 8:30 AM Arlington, GA F2 - 8
Jan 11, 1918 1:40 PM Dothan, AL F3 - 8
Jun 20, 1890 2:30 PM Paw Paw, IL F4 – 7
Nationwide, between 1884 and 2007, a total of 45 tornadoes caused 282 fatalities in schools according to Wikipedia. Even though this represents a lot of precious lives, it represents a very low percentage of the total number of tornado-related deaths during that time.
III. Another consideration is the fact that 96% of all tornado deaths occur in strong to violent tornadoes (F2 or greater).
Only 26% of all tornadoes reach F2 or greater strength and these tornadoes account for the vast majority of fatalities (96%). This information is available through NOAA and the Tornado Project. Because of this fact, the lowest level, interior sections of secure buildings, away from windows are generally safe in all but the very worst tornadoes. However, mobile homes can be pushed off foundations or overturned and automobiles can be blown off the road even in an F1 tornado.
The Enterprise school administrators planned on closing Enterprise High School early at 1 p.m. but at the last minute decided not to close the school because the area was under a tornado warning. Despite the fact that 8 students lost their lives, I think that school administrators made the best possible decision. If school had been dismissed early, many students would have been in cars, busses, on foot, in mobile homes, and unaccounted for by parents. As a result, many of them would have been in a much more vulnerable position than they were at the school.
Statistics and history seem to indicate that, generally speaking, children tend to be safer in school during severe weather. Almost all deaths that occur in schools during tornadoes are in F3 or greater tornadoes. If children are released early, they will be more susceptible to danger from weaker tornadoes, (which are much more frequent), because they will be caught in cars, busses, and mobile homes. Not even all site-built homes are as safe as schools.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend is the idea of school administrators deciding during the early morning hours to release children at 11, 12, or 1:00. When those decisions are made in the early morning hours, no one, including meteorologists, can pinpoint the exact time and place the dangerous weather will arrive. Allowing for travel time, parents and students may have been on the road between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. throughout Alabama on Thursday. If a tornado happens to strike during that time, those travelers are especially vulnerable. If there is a moderate to high risk of severe weather and an administrator deems it necessary to close a school, he or she should either call off school completely or keep the students in school all day. It was insane that schools were closing during the peak of the severe weather.
Schools should have a very liberal policy of allowing parents to make the final decision. As a parent, the ultimate responsibility for my child’s safety is mine, not the government’s. In order to enhance school safety, I think that consideration should be given to installing "safe rooms" or "storm shelters" in all schools in tornado-prone areas that do not currently have adequate shelter.
As we all know, hindsight is 20/20. Obviously almost anywhere would have been safer than Enterprise High School on Thursday March 1, 2007 because it was struck by an EF3 tornado. 99.9% of the geographic area in this state would have been safer than the hallway of that school. It’s too easy for critics to say "they should have let the students out of school." But, based on what was known at the time, the administrators made the right decision.
What Others Are Saying (Updated 3/5/07)
But senior Charles Strickland said the carnage would have been far worse if students were trying to leave school during the storm. "If they'd let us out, they'd be looking at 50 to 300 dead," Strickland said. He pointed to a parking lot full of students' vehicles that were thrown around by the twister, with some coming to rest against the building. "Imagine those kids in the parking lot sitting in those cars," English teacher Beverly Thompson said. This was from an AP article by Jay Reeves.
"The administration of Enterprise High School did the right thing by keeping students in the school building during the March 1 tornado. I applaud their plan, which probably saved the lives of dozens of students. Yes, we mourn the loss of the precious lives that were lost, but we can’t let that distort the school closing issue. I truly regret that our friends in Enterprise are having to deal with the countless array of national TV “talking heads” who are playing Monday Morning Quarterback, and being critical of their decision not to dismiss school. All of these people have basically no understanding of tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, the tornado warning process, Alabama weather history, and engineering methods in home and school design and construction. It is all noise, and I know the people in Southeast Alabama will be glad when those people leave town." James Spann, in Alabamawx.com
"Some lined up to hug and offer words of encouragement for the school superintendent. First Baptist Church parishioners gave Superintendent Jim Reese a standing ovation after the pastor thanked him for his service to the community." AP Article on WTVY web site.
"Mike Shroades entered Enterprise High School to pick up his daughter Thursday afternoon. School was closing at 1 p.m. and he hoped to make it home before the storm struck. He didn’t make it. Shroades walked into the school just as police officers ran inside yelling “it’s coming.” Parents, teachers and students took shelter in the hallway in the middle of the school. Debris was everywhere. People were screaming. You could feel your body moving from the wind and suction,” he said. His daughter, Brooke Shroades, was across the school, huddled inside a cubby hole in the choir room. “When I heard the train sound, I started screaming,” she said." Tornado Witness by Whitney McHugh of the Dothan Eagle
"What the school did is exactly what I would have done if I had been here," Riley said. "There are certain things that will cost lives that we cannot control." "Riley tours Enterprise High, says officials made right decision on closing at 1 p.m." by the Birmingham News
Severe Thunderstorm Warning Issued For Parts Of Dekalb County Until 7:30PM - At 6:47 PM CDT, a severe thunderstorm was located over Tabor Road, or 13 miles west of Centre, moving northeast at 40 mph.
41 minutes ago