Not again, thought Superintendent Cherrie Steele as the tornado sirens began to blare in her community near Oklahoma City.
Four years ago this month, one of the mightiest tornadoes on record slammed through Midwest City, killing more than 40 people, destroying scores of homes, and damaging an elementary school so badly that it couldn’t be used anymore.
Ms. Steele flashed back to that harrowing day as the sirens earlier this month signaled the worst batch of tornadoes on record in the United States. More than 300 in all, the twisters took 40 lives or more and devastated towns in Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.
The recent tornado in Ms. Steele’s community headed down the same path as the 1999 funnel, but stopped short of hitting schools—this time.
Campuses and communities elsewhere were not so fortunate. Dozens of schools in several states saw serious damage, and several schools were destroyed.
School buildings on the southern tip of Illinois suffered heavy damage, and a teacher there was killed by debris at his home. In Missouri, schools in the southeastern portion of the state were forced to close for the rest of the academic year, even while graduation ceremonies and high school proms remained on schedule.
Meanwhile, almost every school in the 13,500-student Jackson- Madison County, Tenn., district was damaged. Two schools had to be closed when a tornado killed 11 people and obliterated homes and buildings around the small city of Jackson in western Tennessee on May 5.
Helen Owens, the principal of the 50-student Jackson Middle Magnet School for the Arts and Humanities, moved classes to the local community college after her school was destroyed. “It’s been a grieving process for all of us,” she said last week.
Losses in Illinois
School districts in southernmost Illinois were badly shaken earlier this month when at least five tornadoes ripped through the area, killing two people and injuring 50.
Cairo High School in Alexander County saw minor storm damage, but mourned the loss of a popular teacher who died heroically.
Steve Koha, a 53-year-old computer science teacher at the 220-student school, was killed when his home’s chimney collapsed and he threw himself over his wife and 8-year-old son to protect them, an official said. He is credited with saving their lives.
“Everyone is shocked,” said Superintendent Robert Isom of Cairo Unit School District 1. Speaking quietly, he added: “His students and also many of his colleagues are still in a daze.”
The 925-student district closed for a day last week.
Mr. Isom is confident that if a tornado strikes during school hours, the district will draw on its disaster plan, which includes monthly safety drills.
“We’re pretty well set up to handle emergencies such as this so we don’t get caught up in the chaos,” Mr. Isom said.
The Pope County schools, also in southern Illinois, postponed state testing and closed schools for at least eight days because of storm-related school damage, which included destruction of most of the district’s mobile classrooms.
The scene was particularly grim at the district’s grade school gymnasium, which took a direct hit.
“If you can imagine a carpet being shook out, that’s what the roof looked like. There are bubbles where the roof buckled and caved in,” said Angela Farmer, the assistant superintendent of the 550-student Pope County Consolidated Unit District 1.
It’s hard to believe, but Superintendent Terry Noble was grateful after a storm on May 6 ransacked three schools in his rural community of De Soto, Mo., southwest of St. Louis. Had the storm he described as “10 miles wide” hit during the school day, there’s no telling how many children might have been swept away.
Some students were at De Soto Junior High School that evening.
The track team had just returned from a meet when a custodian announced over the public address system that everyone should take cover. They hustled to the lowest part of the building. When they emerged, the junior high gym was strewn with rubble, and the roof from the nearby high school gym was half-gone.
With so much damage, Mr. Noble ended the year for his 2,800 students more than two weeks early. Graduation will be held at a local college, and the prom will be at a nearby Holiday Inn.
“Rather than feel remorse or grief over losing 17 days of school ... we’re rejoicing that there were no injuries,” he said. “We can build and replace material things and plant trees back.”
Mr. Noble advises school leaders in storm-prone areas to prepare for something this bad. “Take your drills seriously, and do them very often,” he said. “On a night when there are storm warnings, get the kids home.”
Missouri Commissioner of Education D. Kent King sent members of his staff to four hard- hit communities in his state to assess damage and provide assistance.
He noted that while the damaged or destroyed schools had just completed state tests for the year, the test documents “hadn’t all been mailed off.” He hoped the tests had not been damaged.
Many Missouri teachers lost lesson plans, materials, and syllabi. “A lot of those were lost,” Mr. King said. “They were blown away.”
State budget troubles could put some schools in deeper water if insurance payments do not cover the damage: No extra state money exists to bail out the schools, he said.
When a tornado struck towns in Oklahoma two weeks ago, educators in Superintendent Steele’s Midwest City-Del City School District sprang into action, implementing lessons learned over years of living with tornadoes.
Principals and administrators now carry pagers that are connected to the National Weather Service, so they knew that a tornado was headed their way.
Principals also followed the procedure of gathering at their schools, while district administrators went to the district headquarters. The district promptly organized buses to transport people out of damaged neighborhoods, and prepared buildings for their shelter. “When it does happen, we kind of kick into autopilot,” Ms. Steele said.
In years before the great 1999 tornado—which officials said was the most powerful ever measured in the United States, with 318 mph winds—schools were used as storm shelters. But in meetings with emergency workers and leaders of nearby Tinker Air Force Base, Ms. Steele learned that gathering large numbers of people in one building could prove deadly and no longer plan to use schools as large-scale shelters.
The recent storms also offered a reminder that tornadoes and severe weather of any kind can affect schools even if there is no physical damage.
In such situation students are distracted from schoolwork, while teachers’ responsibilities extend well beyond English and mathematics and toward preparing to ensure children’s safety. Administrators might take on added roles to help their communities.
“Kids are very conscious of [the situation], and they’re easily alarmed by the storms,” especially after a disaster hits so close to home, said Bob Mooneyham, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, based at the University of Oklahoma.
The bad weather this month added to an already heavy emotional burden for Ms. Steele’s district, which is trying to cope with the impact of state budget cuts. Ms. Steele said she had cut 126 teacher positions and dozens of other jobs in recent weeks.
“In the words of my principals,” she said, “‘How much more?’”