By JEROD CLAPP
HENRYVILLE — Light classical music played in his office, but Glenn Riggs could still hear teachers and fifth-graders getting ready for their trip to Junior Achievement Biztown in the room next door.
Laughter, learning, lessons — they were all just parts of a normal day at school.
But the remnants of the disaster that struck just a year ago remain with Riggs, the principal of Henryville Elementary School. Though much has come back, he said there are reminders of the deadly March 2, 2012, EF-4 tornado everywhere.
For Riggs, a painting made for him by one of his employees that hung in his office for 25 years is gone forever, lost in the storm.
“[The tornado] is going to be a real tangible and emotional pivotal point in all or our lives for eternity, I would guess,” Riggs said. “This year has been a complete rebuilding process. Even though we got back into [the building] very quickly, we’ve been gradually putting the school together over the process of this year.”
He said while others in the school community continue to deal with loss, inside and outside the classroom, an overwhelming sense of gratitude resonates from everyone in the building, which saw no loss of life.
BACK IN SESSION
Mangled steel beams and entire portions of the building that were ripped open have gone back to the way they were before March 2, 2012. But Monty Schneider, superintendent at West Clark Community Schools, said there were a few upgrades made to the school while it was rebuilt.
He said Belfor, the restoration company that handled the schools’ repairs, was able to update the lighting and make certain elements of the structure, including the roof, more consistent through the school. He said they weren’t before because different parts of the building had been updated at different times over the years.
“I think most things are back to the way they were,” Schneider said. “The building itself looks the same, but we got a much better building. I think we’ve got one roof, one heating system, because the school had numerous additions, so I think the physical plant is better than before the storm.”
About three weeks after the storm, elementary students attended class at Graceland Baptist Church in New Albany. Nearly two weeks later, junior and senior high school students finished the year out at the Mid-America Science Park in Scottsburg.
And all the while, they waited to get their school back. The $50 million project — which was paid for by the district’s insurance — took Belfor, working around-the-clock, about five months to complete.
Rob Robbins, sales and product manager with the company, said he was on site within 12 or 15 hours of the disaster. He said getting the school up and running in such short order was paramount not just for students, but also for the rest of the community.
“The school is the lifeblood of any community, particularly in Henryville, which is K-12,” Robbins said. “If it’s not in session, those parents have situations where they go to work and may not be able to go if [school’s] out. It kind of disrupts the normal flow of any community for school to not be in session for an extended length of time.”
Riggs said seeing the place where many of the community members had been educated come back so quickly was a source of hope for their own lives.
“I think seeing the school return in that short period of time made people proud and made them say, ‘We’re back,’” Riggs said, “even though, as of today, there are a lot of people who aren’t back. Their normal isn’t the way the school’s normal is. Look on the hillside, you still see houses with the blue tarp on them and there’s nothing being done because of a combination of things. But the school was able to kind of turn that corner so quickly, I think it was real positive and can be a lesson to show how you can bounce back.”
Troy Albert, principal of the junior/senior high school, said the physical structure gives some hope, but the community also feels hope when they walk through the hallways with their children to attend events and games.
“It’s a slow process in the recovery,” Albert said. “But this gave them a place to go if they wanted to go to a basketball or volleyball game, and there was a place they could go in the evening instead of having to worry about what was really going on at home.”
There are more materials coming in for the school and parts of the building that are still getting up and running. Gymnasiums had furniture and other items stored away, leaving those teachers another year without their own space.
Riggs said the library will have a grand opening in April. He said the recovery of the school would have been more difficult without the support from surrounding communities and others across the country.
Still unaccounted for
Some teachers lost materials they accumulated in their classrooms over years of their careers because of the storm.
Jolie Lindley, the school’s yearbook adviser, didn’t have a whole lot of damage to her room. Part of the floor above her class was destroyed, but only a few of the ceiling tiles were gone. She said while she understands some of her books near windows were likely water-damaged, she saw much of her classroom was untouched when she came back on a couple of occasions.
She said she and other teachers down her hallway had the same experience, even though they were assured what could be saved would return to them after getting stored away by Belfor.
“We all didn’t get our stuff back, which tells me that somewhere along the line, the ball was dropped just where this hallway got sorted out,” Lindley said. “Maybe it is sitting in a warehouse in Indianapolis, I don’t know. But nobody seems to know.”
She said she’s tried to contact Belfor a number of times without any resolution to the issue. She said yearbooks from the time she started working there are gone, which amounts to lost profit because she sold those to alumni at games and other events.
Insurance is unlikely to cover personal effects of teachers, she said, and claiming them on homeowners insurance would be difficult after paying a deductible.
On the other side of the school, Tom Lee, a fourth-grade teacher, said he had a similar experience. He was able to gather up essential items when Belfor let teachers back in and saw much of what he had was in good shape. When school was about to start back, he didn’t have his materials returned to him.
“It’s unfortunate and kind of tough to work through that, coming back into the room and seeing nothing was really damaged, or sucked out of the room and sent to Cincinnati,” Lee said. “Some of the books, I expected to lose, but I didn’t expect that I would come back and have as little as I did.”
Robbins said Belfor has returned everything the company stored for the school and any unclaimed items were left in the school’s gym. He said bad weather while much of the school was wide open may have contributed to the unexpected losses.
“We have no contents that we have withheld,” Robbins said. “All of them have been released back to the school. Obviously, there was a lot of stuff damaged in that tornado by water, wind or exposure to elements for a week or two. Belfor has no further contents to distribute.”
Lee said in some ways, it’s nice to not have the clutter because teachers are hoarders in some ways. But he said when he wants to use something in class he’s had for years, it’s tough when that item isn’t there.
“It feels like there’s kind of a freedom that you’re unencumbered by these possessions and closets of junk with stuff you might use and other times you wouldn’t,” Lee said. “It kind of makes it tricky when you’re doing your job. Every single day, you go to get a prop or video that has always been there. Every single day you’ll go back and say, ‘crap, that’s gone.’”
Lindley said she understands Belfor had a huge job to do and is happy to be back in her classroom. But she said it’s frustrating when the losses some teachers experienced didn’t have to happen. She said the school’s staff has been incredibly helpful through the process of working through the losses, though.
“It’ll take this year to get back to normal,” Lindley said. “The principals have been great. Troy has been awesome about keeping us informed of what’s going on and lots of teachers are still missing furniture. All of that’s been ordered, but he said they were told it might be a year for that to come back, and we accept that.”
Schneider said the district’s board of trustees is still working out what it’s going to do about the lost materials for teachers, but said it won’t be able to replace everything.
“The board intends to do something after they completely settle with insurance and see what our expenses and total loss are,” Schneider said. “Those items will not be covered by the school insurance. We’ve had discussions with a teacher group about those and the board will be doing something with those, but until all the school’s issues are taken care of, that’s on hold.”
He said it’s likely the board will allow teachers a flat dollar amount to help replace their belongings. With a pool of donations to the district amounting to about $700,000, he said they’ll be as fair as possible to their employees.
Riggs said in some ways, the school became famous because of the tornado. While it brought some help with recovery and memorable moments for students — such as a concert for them by country musicians Lady Antebellum — it wouldn’t be his first choice as a reason for the spotlight.
But Albert said since the tornado, the schools are working toward a different claim to fame. He said students and staff have pulled together to help communities who have gone through other disasters recover like Henryville has.
“I want the spotlight to be on how we’re helping others that may be going through similar catastrophes, like Hurricane Sandy and raising $1,400 to send to two different schools in Staten Island,” Albert said. “Knowing what people did for us made a huge difference; now our students have a mission of helping others and they’re looking outside to see what we can do to help some people that would be in similar situations as us.”
He said students have a new sense of responsibility to help others, which he said isn’t measured on any state exam.
Riggs said with children back in school, the rest of the community is able to focus on getting their lives back in order. He said giving kids a sense of normal also helps people feel a little better about everything else.
“Everybody wants to make a child happy,” Riggs said. “I don’t care who you are, even Mr. Grumbly Scrooge, whoever you want to be, ultimately part of what life is all about is raising young people. I think there’s a lot of pride. We say Hornet Pride, but they’re saying this is a safe place, this is a comfortable place, this is my place. I think there’s an ownership in it — it is our school.”
Robbins said with the anniversary of the storm coming up, he’s excited to come back to the town for a celebration to see what progress has been made and how students are doing. Seeing the school back in order probably helps everyone else feel better about how everything can come together in their own lives, he said.
“I think it gives [the community] a lot of hope and encouragement that they’d have the ability to restore their own lives on a parallel track, perhaps in their own homes,” Robbins said. “But when a community looks back on the amount of money and energy expended to bring their lives back to normal, it has a ripple effect through the entire town.”