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Quincy's schools built to withstand nature's fury

An air cannon at UL in Northbrook, Illinois fires 12-foot-long boards at building materials at 100mph to test how they will withstand powerful tornadoes. Photo courtesy UL.

Illinois lawmakers made it a requirement that new schools being constructed must have a tornado safe room installed to fit all students and staff.

That law went into effect in 2015-- Perfect timing for Quincy's quest to build five new schools.

So. before students attending the new Quincy Public Schools can take tests in the new classrooms, the school itself has to pass a difficult test of its own.

"The tornado safe room, in Lincoln-Douglas (Elementary School) is almost completed, we have some pads to put up still," said QPS Superintendent Roy Webb. "But, if there's a weather emergency, a tornado, heavy straight-line winds, or something like that, they can all come in this room and they'll be safe and secure."

The challenge? The tornado shelter has to withstand winds of 250 miles per hour. That's the strength of a killer EF-5 tornado.

This task was accepted by Klinger and Associates, lead designer of the new Lincoln-Douglas Elementary school.

"The design is not that much different than designing a regular building, for just normal winds, but we're designing for 250mph winds," said Klinger and Associates structural project engineer Ryan Phelps. "So everything is heavier. That's really the main difference."

The 250mph requirement set by the state of Illinois stems from the International Code Council's standard for construction of storm shelters. Quincy, Illinois sits right in the center of their 250mph wind speed zone, an area that is frequented by twisters.

When it comes to designing the new shelter, every aspect from the doors, windows to the utility openings has to withstand the power of tornadoes.

"You can't have windows unless their tested for that type of wind, which is pretty hard to meet," Phelps said.

It's one thing to say that a door or a wall can withstand a tornado, but another thing to actually prove it. At UL in Northbrook, Illinois, they have the technology to do just that.

"We use this (air) cannon for two different purposes," said UL engineering manager Wayne Breighner. "One is for hurricane testing; the other is for tornado safe rooms. The tornado safe room is to ensure that everyone has a place to go to during a tornado, that is safe in a building."

To simulate the effects of tornadoes, a 12-foot-long board is fired at 100 miles per hour at building materials to make sure they can pass the strict requirement.

The roof in the gymnasium, which is the shelter for the school, is made up of several 16,000 pound concrete slabs that interlock with the wall. It's what helps keep the whole unit together, fighting against nature's fury.

For QPS Superintendent Roy Webb, the shelters provide a needed sense of security when the skies turn dark.

"We've had them hunkered down in halls and away from glass, and we've done the best we can in the past," Webb said. "Now have a room designed that kids can come into."

Materials used in the new Quincy Public Schools have already been tested to withstand 250mph winds. The High School's tornado shelter was installed during the school's remodel and it's an entire wing of the school.

The first new elementary school, Lincoln-Douglas Elementary, opens in just a few weeks.


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