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Duck and cover: Tornado drill prepares students for emergencies

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Teachers walk by students as they get in the "duck and cover" position when practicing safety methods during a tornado drill at G.R. Whitfield Elementary School Wednesday, March 7, 2018.


By Brian Wudkwych
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

At G.R. Whitfield School, they know the drill.

Students there were led out of their classrooms on Wednesday morning before kneeling on the ground in the hallway and covering their heads — all while remaining calm as the emergency alarm blared through the building, signaling a tornado. 

After about five minutes the all-clear was given and the students went back to their regularly scheduled classes. 

The scene was not part of an impending natural disaster, but rather in preparation for one during the annual statewide tornado drill, where students in other Pitt County schools and across North Carolina did much the same. 

Allen Everette, director of Pitt County Emergency Management, walked the hallways alongside Pitt County Schools Superintendent Ethan Lenker and school Principal Tracy Gibbs to observe the drill. It went off without a hitch but Everette said it is always important to make sure staff and students are prepared. 

“Here at school, we want to make sure our students know what the drill is, where they need to go, how they need to duck in cover,” Everette said. 

He estimated that North Carolina sees an average of 26 tornadoes per year and three resulting deaths. The biggest misconception he sees is that people think it cannot happen to them. 

In fact, Greene County Middle School was heavily damaged in 2011 as a result of a tornadoes that pummeled the region. There were no reported casualties, but dozens of homes in the neighboring county were destroyed. If nothing else, Everette said, it serves as a bleak reminder to what could happen.  

“We want people to realize that these events do not discriminate,” he said. “We all need to be prepared. Always take any kind of watch or warning seriously.”

The drill is part of Severe Weather Preparedness Week, which runs until Saturday. During the week, officials are pushing safety information on social media, giving wallet-sized tip cards and using lighted roadside message boards to relay preparation tips and more. 

Everette said that tornadoes are more prevalent during March, April and May. Sometimes, he said, tornadoes will reach as high as 300 mph, giving them enough power to destroy buildings. The key is to stay in front of them. 

Lenker said a safety committee looks at the drills and decides what, if any, changes need to be made to keep everyone safe. Keeping things calm is vital, as hundreds of frantic students can make for a chaotic scene if the right parameters are not in place. 

To Lenker, this is one of the most valuable aspects of the drills.

“Obviously the more people involved, the harder and more confusing things can be, especially if kids don’t know what to do and teachers don’t know what to do,” he said. 

Out of the halls and in the classroom, the destructive nature of tornadoes is taught as well.

Fourth-grader Madelyn Sutter said that she has read about injuries and sometimes fatalities that can occur as a result of a tornado. So even though she admittedly did not like being squished in the hallway, she said she understood the importance. 

“I sort of got an advantage because I had a bag with me,” Sutter said. “For everybody else their head was on the floor. Everybody else was relieved that it didn’t feel that bad.”

Still, she said the drills are necessary.

“It’s important to be prepared because if you’re not prepared, something bad could happen and a lot of the times will happen,” she said.

Contact Brian Wudkwych at bwudkwych@reflector.com or 252-329-9567 and follow @brianwudkwych on Twitter. 

Tips for tornadoes

■ Be weather-ready: Check the forecast regularly to see if you're at risk for tornadoes. Listen to local news or a NOAA Weather Radio to stay informed about tornado watches and warnings.

■ Sign up for notifications: Know how your community sends warnings. Some communities have outdoor sirens. Others depend on media and smart phones to alert residents of severe storms capable of producing tornadoes.

■ Create a communications plan: Have a family plan that includes an emergency meeting place and related information. Pick a safe room in your home, such as a basement, storm cellar, or an interior room on the lowest floor with no windows.

■ Practice your plan: Conduct a family severe thunderstorm drill regularly so everyone knows what to do if a tornado is approaching. Make sure all members of your family know to go there when tornado warnings are issued. Don't forget pets if time allows.

■ Prepare your home: Consider having your safe room reinforced.

■ Help your neighbor: Encourage your loved ones to prepare for the possibility of tornadoes. Take CPR training so you can help if someone is hurt.

The National Weather Service