Schools plan to reopen after deadly storms

Storms destroyed school buildings, disrupting the rest of the school year in many cases.
The storms that chugged across the South last week killed at least 44 people in six states, destroying school buildings and leaving residents to wonder when, exactly, they would return to their daily routines.

Ultimately, this deadliest swarm of twisters in three years, which battered up to 15 states, could turn out to be among the top 10 three-day outbreaks for number of tornadoes, though experts can’t be sure until all the reports are sorted, said Greg Carbin of the federal Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

Students in the tornado-ravaged southeastern Oklahoma town of Tushka won’t be back in class until April 25 as officials scramble to find teaching space after the storm nearly wiped out the town’s only school, the local high school principal said on April 18.

“This has been a state of complete chaos, so I hate to say anything is concrete,” Principal Matt Simpson said. “But we do have plans. The long-term plan is we’re going to rebuild the school.”

Tentative plans call for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade to attend classes in local church buildings, while the district’s high school students likely will attend classes and take end-of-instruction tests at the Kiamichi Technology Center campus in nearby Atoka, he said.

Because the district’s 481 students will be out of classes for six days before school resumes, the last day of school, now scheduled for May 20, will likely be pushed back, Simpson said.

The tornado, the most powerful of at least 21 twisters that hit the state late on April 14 and early April 15, killed two people, injured at least 43 others, and destroyed 149 homes and businesses, many along the town’s two main streets.

The school–a collection of buildings housing grades K-12–was all but gone.

Under Oklahoma law, students must receive 175 days or 1,050 hours of instruction each school year. During the past 20 years, the state Board of Education has allowed a handful of Oklahoma school districts to cancel classes for the remainder of the school year following tornadoes that devastated those areas. Those districts include Oologah-Talala in 1991, Catoosa in 1993, Picher-Cardin and Quapaw in 2008, and Little Axe, Varnum, and Butner last year.

But that’s probably not an option for Tushka, because the tornado occurred in mid-April, just five weeks before the district’s scheduled last day of school. While Tushka elementary school and middle school students have completed their state-mandated testing for the school year, the district’s high school students have not.

Simpson said the elementary and middle school students finished their tests on April 14, hours before the tornado hit. The tests were contained in a box that was placed in a closet in a school building that was “semi-destroyed,” he said.

“But the box wasn’t damaged,” he said. “This has been a horrible experience but there are a few things that have worked to our advantage.”

State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi toured Tushka on April 16 and pledged to offer the state Department of Education’s support. Barresi asked the state’s Department of Central Services to make available surplus state items such as computers, desks, chairs and other supplies.

“Everything is on the table to see what we can do to assist them and clear the decks to make sure they have the resources they need,” said Barresi’s spokesman, Damon Gardenhire.

Gov. May Fallin requested a federal disaster declaration on April 18 for Atoka County, which would help provide federal assistance to individuals and businesses in the area. During her visit to the town Saturday, Fallin said “in the long term, we’ve got to find out how to build a new school in that area.”

In Little Axe, where a tornado destroyed the school’s central office and football stadium last May, much of the damage has been repaired, district Superintendent Barry Damrill said. But it took time to work with insurance companies to expedite payments so that construction could begin.

When asked what advice Damrill would give to his counterparts in Tushka, he said: “Patience.”

“They’re just going to have to be as patient as they can. It’s going to take a long time to put everything back together,” he said.

Many Tushka students have been on cleanup duty since the storm hit. One of them, 15-year-old high school freshman Shelbee Gabriel, is looking forward to returning to school, even though she said it “will be more stressful” as students study for and take end-of-instruction exams.

“When you’re in school, you wish it would be the end of the year, so you could go out and have fun,” she said. “But when something like this happens, it’s all gone and you kind of miss [school] because that’s what you did all day. Instead you have to see people who’ve lost everything crying as they go through their things.”

Storms battered their way from Oklahoma to North Carolina, claiming at least 44 lives, almost half of those in North Carolina. It was the deadliest since Feb. 5, 2008, when 57 died in the “Super Tuesday” election day tornadoes in the Southeast. And that was the highest tornado death toll since 76 died in 1985.

From April 14 through April 16, there were reports of funnel clouds in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

In North Carolina, just east of downtown Raleigh at Shaw University, a tornado poked a hole in the roof of the student center and knocked out dormitory windows. The school canceled the last two weeks of school because of the damage.

Tornadoes and flash flooding left at least six people dead in Virginia, and crews are continuing to assess damage that severe weekend storms caused across several areas of the state.

Gov. Bob McDonnell on Sunday declared a state of emergency, authorizing state agencies to assist local efforts in response and recovery efforts.

Virginia Department of Emergency Management spokesman Bob Spieldenner said Sunday that three people died and scores suffered injuries in Gloucester County, where a tornado cut through a 12-mile swath, uprooting trees and destroying homes.

Gloucester officials said the tornado ripped the roof off Page Middle School and destroyed part of the building, as well as overturned school buses and cars.

Gloucester County school officials canceled classes April 18 after the tornado blew the roof off Page Middle School. School officials said classes for elementary and high school will resume April 19. Starting April 20, the 580 students who attend Page will attend Peasley Middle School, with Peasley students going to class in the mornings and Page students attending in the afternoons.

Dominion Virginia Power reported that tens of thousands of households lost electricity through the night, but that number fell to about 6,600 by mid-day on April 17. Most remaining outages were in the Gloucester and Northern Neck regions.

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