By Joseph Harkins
JOPLIN, MO. __ The residents of Joplin, Mo., dug deep this week to embrace and avoid vivid memories as they continue to rebuild – both emotionally and physically – from a ravaging tornado that left 161 dead, injured hundreds more and paralyzed a third of the city in calamity last spring.
One year to the day after the deadly tornado tore open the earth in this southwest Missouri community, officials broke ground on three new schools, a symbolic gesture to the start of construction and the end of an academic year marked by tragedy, turmoil and perseverance.
The tornado, May 22, 2011, destroyed 10 of the city’s public schools including the high school, preempting seniors to finish their final year in a converted big-box store at a local shopping mall.
President Obama had helped bid the 428 members of the Class of 2012 farewell during an emotional graduation ceremony a day before the groundbreaking, praising the students for overcoming obstacles to reach their big day.
“There is no doubt that this has been a challenging year,” said C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin public schools. “The groundbreakings represented a turning point for Joplin schools. It was an opportunity to honor those we lost and the thousands of volunteers who have helped us over the last year to reach this historic moment. With the groundbreakings, we turned our eyes to the future and celebrated the progress and potential for Joplin schools.”
The twister arrived hours after last year's high school graduation, forever defining the Joplin Class of 2011 and their younger classmates as well.
Despite the hardships and less than ideal conditions which scattered the ninth and 10th grades to makeshift locations across town and the middle school to an industrial park warehouse for the 2011-2012 academic year, Huff said the community was determined to return to school on time.
“We have worked very hard as a district to make sure that our kids are taken care of from both an educational and emotional standpoint,” he said. “We have had trauma teams in the schools all year which have provided individual counseling and group sessions to students.”
Huff said that prior to the past school year, Joplin teachers were trained to identify signs of stress and trauma in students and amongst themselves.
“Just having the resources and knowing that there are people who can help has allowed our teachers to focus on teaching and our students to focus on learning,” he said. “We've also worked hard to keep a normal schedule and provide all of the services and classes we did before the storm so that school feels like a ‘normal’ and safe place to be for our students and staff.”
The three new schools being built to replace those lost last year, including the new high school expected to open in 2014, will be financed in part by a $62 million bond issue approved by Joplin voters in April.
Huff said the city’s idea of safety was rocked on May 22, 2011, and that for students and staff to know they have a secure place to be when a storm of any magnitude beckons will be a source of great comfort.
“In all of our new construction, we are incorporating student and community safe rooms to provide safety during severe weather,” he said. “We are also building student and community safe rooms at our schools throughout the district. These dual-purpose rooms will serve, in most cases, as gyms when not used as safe rooms.”
During severe weather, community members living within a five-minute walking distance to the school will have access to these safe rooms, said Huff.
Just two days following last year’s tornado, emergency sirens sounded again, sending shivers through the already stone-cold faces of Joplin residents. As a result, more than 50 people showed up at one of the city’s middle schools seeking shelter and spent the night in the basement.
“We believe that these safe rooms will not only provide our students, staff and parents a sense of security during severe weather, but also those living in surrounding neighborhoods who may not have access to a safe place to take shelter,” said Huff.