Surveillance | Feature

Tornado Watch!

The surveillance system in this school captured second by second its destruction by tornado.

The silent images in the short videos are searing. In one, a school bus rolls into a school parking lot. Two people race outside and accompany children back inside the building. The bus' lights go out and another person--the driver?--runs inside too. A minute passes and another bus drives up facing the first one. Children run from that bus to the school building and disappear inside. The bus sits there, lights flashing. All is calm. Cars pass by in the background. Three minutes later, sheets of rain begin slamming against the parking lot. Then at precisely 3:15 the image in the screen grows dim as powerful winds shove the second bus toward the school.

This Axis Communications IP camera captures what happens in the Henryville Elementary School parking lot in the minutes surrounding the arrival of a massive tornado on March 2, 2012. The real action happens at about 6 minutes and 10 seconds into the video.

Another video clip shows a placid scene of a windowless gymnasium, glowing gold, lights bright, floor shiny. Suddenly, in the course of five seconds, the room is dark and one wall begins disintegrating inward. A wave of water rushes in, and then the room is light again, but the image has turned from gold to black and white. The wall is gone, as is the roof. Only the skeletal trusses remain above. The light is coming from the outside world. Debris fills the space. As the destruction ebbs, color slowly seeps back into the image.

This Axis Communication IP camera captures what happens to the roof when a tornado strikes this Indiana school on March 2, 2012.

In all, 60 brief videos, several that made the rounds of news shows, blogs, and YouTube, shared the destruction that struck Henryville Elementary School and Henryville High School when two tornadoes punched the Indiana town on March 2, 2012--the first of those wrapped in 175 mph winds. Eighty five people--both staff and students--hadn't made it home in time after the schools were closed. They were holing up together in interior offices when the schools were struck.

This Axis Communications IP camera captures what happens to the boys' gymnasium when a tornado strikes this Indiana high school on March 2, 2012.

District IT Director Jerry Smith said the fact that nobody was injured aside from minor cuts amazes him. "The way the tornado chewed the [high] school up, it took the south part of the school and took the cafeteria, the library, all the way up to the wall that separates the office [where students were riding out the storm]. The wall of the office was intact, but everything south of that was gone."

These West Clark Community Schools, which have a common roof, made the national news again in May when Grammy-winning Lady Antebellum played a mini-prom at the high school and later raised $235,000 at a Louisville concert to help rebuild the community.

This Axis Communications IP camera captures what happens to the elementary school roof when a tornado strikes Henryville Elementary on March 2, 2012.

What's lesser known is that all of those video images, which captured the ravage from multiple perspectives and locations, used camera gear from Axis Communications. This usage demonstrates the value of video surveillance for more than the purposes of security.

Choosing Video Gear
The video work had begun in October 2010 in response to a $50,000 heating and air equipment vandalism episode. The overall goal was to protect the schools' perimeter, with a focus on exterior doors, and to get cameras on the roof of the structure.

Working with CDW-G, the district evaluated several video vendors. They chose IP-based Axis network cameras based on video quality and pricing. For capturing the video, Smith and his team chose ipConfigure. They brought in Louisville-based ECT Services to act as the security integrator.

Those were solid choices, according to Smith. On that eventful Friday, even as power went out on campus and the first tornado mowed through the building, the cameras kept recording--at least those that weren't torn off of walls and rooftop. They weathered the power outage for 40 or 45 minutes because they were hooked up to video servers stashed in switch closets backed up by UPS batteries and powered by power-over-Ethernet. "They kept rolling. They did a great job," Smith said.

The surveillance system recorded the gym wall collapsing, the bus being shoved toward the school building, teachers and students--armed only with the light from their smartphones--scrambling over a hallway filled with lockers that have been ripped from the walls.

"We've Got Some Stuff Here"
Smith wasn't at the schools when the tornadoes ripped through. He was in his district office about 11 miles away in Sellersburg. A co-worker had gone outside and seen the first tornado and called others out to watch. Since all communication had been lost in Henryville, district people had no idea what was going on north of them or whether their children had gotten out in time. "Everyone was panicking," he said.

The next day, a Saturday, when insurance people converged on the schools and police patrolled to prevent looting, Smith snuck into the school to retrieve the Dell computer that served as a video server. He brought it back to his office and pulled up the video to see what had been recorded.

"We've got some stuff here," he recalled saying to himself. "I saw people that I work with on a daily basis--teachers that were hunkered down in hallways and kids running," he recalled. "You could see them flash through windows. I couldn’t believe it."

The schools are being rebuilt--better than ever, said Smith--with the expectation that they'll reopen in August. The school roof, which "always had problems," has been replaced. The new HVAC system is now "super efficient." A new solar system will reduce energy usage for heating water. Category 6 cable, the standard for gigabit Ethernet, has replaced the old network cabling.

That Dell server pulled from the wreckage will be going right back into the building. Smith has reordered Axis camera gear to replace what was lost or damaged, though the company is also donating a lot of equipment as well.

Ultimately, that implementation of video cameras proved invaluable in the aftermath--not just to show the world the damage that had been done to Henryville's schools, but also to help answer questions about "how things were," Smith noted. Both the construction company and the insurance company have been able to review the videos to look at locations of walls and furniture, durability of doors, and what the schools were outfitted with. That has made dealing with them through reconstruction easier.

Smith was quick to offer advice to other IT leaders regarding the selection of video surveillance equipment. "The one thing I would tell anyone is, don't skimp. If you're going to do something, do it right. Make sure you put the right equipment in."

On top of that, he added, "Make sure you plan. You're always going to have holes, things you've overlooked at least in the initial planning stage. Get with an integrator, someone you can trust on security and surveillance."

In the next iteration of Henryville High and Henryville Elementary, for example, Smith will be adding two Axis cameras "to cover a couple of holes."