After a tornado destroyed much of Joplin, Mo., in 2011, an elementary and middle school is being rebuilt.
On April 27, 2011, officials with the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) city school system had been alerted to the possibility of severe weather — the forecast called for storms, possibly tornados.
"We called off school the day of the storm because of the threats," says Jeff Johnson, executive director of facilities for Tuscaloosa City Schools. "But we didn't think anything this bad would happen."
What happened was a tornado with winds of up to 200 miles an hour ripped through the area, killing more than 60 people and causing damage estimated at more than $2 billion.
One elementary school in Tuscaloosa was destroyed, and another campus that housed an elementary and a middle school, sustained severe damage. Since the tornado, students have been relocated to other campuses, and school district officials have come together with others — city and state officials, community leaders, volunteers — to develop a plan that will rebuild the damaged school campuses.
"This has brought us together," says Johnson. "Before this happened, we were cooperative, but everybody kind of had his own game plan. But since the tornado, it has just been a phenomenal effort. It amazes me every time I think about it."
Better and stronger
When a catastrophe strikes a community, the response of those affected may vary. But whether it's a hurricane like the one that decimated the Gulf Coast in 2005, deadly violence like the attack at Virginia Tech in 2007, or killer tornados like those that cut a path of destruction last year through Tuscaloosa and Joplin, Mo., the schools in those communities have little choice but to push forward and transform a traumatic situation into an opportunity for improvements.
After administrators determine that a school has been rendered unusable because of a catastrophe, their first duty is to quickly find a place for students to continue their schooling. In Tuscaloosa, the storm destroyed Alberta Elementary School, and left University Place middle and elementary schools with enough damage that students could not return there. In Tuscaloosa, once accommodations were found in buildings with underutilized classrooms or through the acquisition of temporary modular facilities, district officials turned their attention to more permanent space solutions.
The district plans to carry out renovations at the University Place campus so that both the elementary and middle schools can reopen in 2013. But at Alberta, rather than build a new school at an accelerated pace, district officials have adopted a more deliberate process that looks not just at the immediate space needs of the district, but also the vision of city officials and other community leaders for the future of the neighborhood that Alberta served.
"We've talked about making the school site more accessible and making it more green so it can have a more positive effect on the community," says Johnson. "It's only about three-quarters of a mile from the main University (of Alabama), so we think it could be very inviting for new housing."
A new school can be built closer to the neighborhood's main thoroughfare because structures that had been there were leveled in the tornado. The city has purchased land in the area and may work with the school district to build a city park near the new Alberta. In addition, city park officials hope to create a greenway trail called CityWalk that generally would follow the path that the destructive tornado took through the city and end at the planned site for Alberta Elementary.
While discussions continue with the community about the best kind of school to serve the area, the district plans to conduct a demographic study to see how many students and families intend to return to the area that had been served by Alberta. The more extensive planning means that a new Alberta Elementary wouldn't be ready for students until 2014.