Without Warning: are schools prepared for an earthquake?

Published: Nov. 11, 2016 at 1:00 AM CST
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CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - Thousands of students take part in the Great Central Shake out every year, but are earthquake drills in schools enough to protect your kids if a massive earthquake hits?

We found problems inside some Heartland Schools and learned what is being done to fix them.

Most people in the Heartland know about the earthquake risk because we live along the New Madrid fault.

Structural engineer Mike Griffin says if you are not ready, you need to be.

"The joke is we need a nice moderate earthquake to kind of wake people up and get them to be like oh yeah we're in earthquake country here. We ought to do something," Griffin said.

An earthquake does not come with a warning.

It could happen while your kids are at school, which makes safety there crucial.

We found some big concerns at the schools we looked at.

The Missouri Seismic Safety commission is trying to do what it can to help schools by offering free inspections, but the school district has to request it.

"If you don't understand what your risk is, how do you... I like that building, let's go do that one first, but this one is more vulnerable and they got more kids in it," Griffin said. "This tells them that."

The inspector looks at numerous things throughout the building(s) and makes notes about what can be done to improve safety for those inside.

The school then gets a Final Report and Summary of the findings.

Sikeston R-6 District shared its inspection report with Heartland News.

Not every building in the district was inspected, but the inspector found several potential safety hazards in the buildings that were checked.

The majority of the concerns are not with the buildings, but things inside them like unrestrained bookcases and storage cabinets that could fall on the kids, interior partition walls that do not have proper bracing, along with unanchored kitchen equipment and water heaters.

The Sikeston superintendent turned down our interview request, but said the district is working on solutions.

During a recent visit to Lee Hunter Elementary and Sikeston High School, it was evident that school administrators have made changes to address vulnerabilities.

Nell Holcomb R-IV School District in Cape Girardeau County is the only school district Griffin knows of that already has policies in place to protect those inside the building.

"The big part of these is contents," Griffin said. "That's not controlled by code, but that's seismically life safe issues and so if they have awareness they can have a housekeeping policy."

The school's inspection showed that seismic safety is top of mind.

"We went to the review, looked at the buildings, and we had no non-structural components identified as deficient," Griffin said.

"You wouldn't realize, but inside of these ceilings these lights are wired together," Barb Kinder said, the Safety Director at Nell Holcomb. "The glass lights won't fall down and shatter on the ground,"

Many of the seismic improvements are not in plain sight.

Every smart board projector and TV is firmly mounted.

Kinder says the district even installed flexible gas lines.

All of these changes are more cost effective than building a new school.

"You can retrofit before the big event and spend X number of dollars or you can wait for the big event and spend 9 time X number of dollars to repair and be aware your community may not actually come back," Griffin said.

The New Madrid Seismic Zone is far reaching and spans into at least 7 states.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is already working on a response plan for the big event when it does happen.

"There are many entities that are doing good things, I mean, look at the state," Griffin said. "The state has been retrofitting bridges up here (St. Louis), your new bridge down there (Cape Girardeau) is seismic.  They are looking at dedicated routes to the Bootheal area because they know that's huge. So any bridges that emergency response personal and resources are going to traverse, they are hardening those and they're looking at alternate routes."

But Griffin says more preventative measures need to be done before the fact.

"Let's move forward reducing our risk a piece at a time," Griffin said. "Then it becomes very manageable."

Officials with the Missouri Seismic Safety Commission say several schools in the Heartland have participated in the non-structural mitigation program between 2010 and 2012.

The program provided grant money to go towards seismic improvements.

The following schools received grant money for non-structural mitigation:

  • Nell Holcomb R-IV School District
  • Sikeston R-6 School District
  • Kennett School District
  • Bloomfield RXIV Schools
  • Doniphan R-1 School District
  • Notre Dame Regional High School (Cape Girardeau)

The MSSC has already inspected several schools across the state and currently has a waiting list.

The following is the list of schools that have already been inspected and those still waiting to be inspected:

Schools inspected:

  • Caruthersville
  • Sikeston
  • Nell Holcomb
  • Chaffee
  • Portageville

Schools on the waiting list:

  • Maries Co. R-II
  • Blair Oaks (Jefferson City)
  • Delmar Cobble School/ Missouri School for Severely Disabled, Columbia
  • Wellsville-Middleton R-1, Wellsville
  • Webster Groves School District
  • Van Buren R-1 School District
  • Central R-3 Schools, Park Hills
  • Risco R-2, Risco (New Madrid)
  • Dunklin R-5 School District (Jefferson County)
  • Sherwood Cass R-8 School District, Creighton (south of Kansas City)
  • Desoto 73 School District (Jefferson County)
  • Belleview R-3 School District, Belleview (south of Potosi)
  • Alton R-4 School District (Oregon County, east of West Plains)
  • Immanuel Lutheran School, Lockwood (west of Springfield)
  • Special School District of STL County
  • Brentwood School District

Parents, if your child's school has been inspected, feel free to ask school administrators to see the district's Rapid Visual Screening report.

If you child's school is not on either list, you may consider asking school administrators why?

School Districts interested in getting on the list can contact Earthquake Program Manager Jeff Briggs at (573) 526-9232 or by e-mail

You can see the full inspection for Sikeston R-6 School District and Nell Holcomb R-IV School District by clicking on the links.

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