Thursday, June 11, 2009

Anniversary Part III

On the day after the tornado (part I & Part II here), the police shut down the town for several hours so they could do a house by house check for casualties. When we were finally allowed back into the areas affected, crews of people began working on salvaging what we could from the houses hit. Stock trailers and trucks shuffled things to storage locations as families who were now homeless made living arrangements. Many families had no automobiles, so they borrowed cars until they could secure something else.

A small city park on main street became the headquarters for volunteers, insurance agents, FEMA, the Health Department, and the local Red Cross. Tents and trailers provided water and food for workers. Restaurants from towns 40 miles away donated food. Churches collected and distributed bottled water and sports drinks. Businesses donated food, drinks, and ice--all valuable in a town with no electricity. Golf carts became the mode of transportation in town as they carted food and drink to workers. (Cars were a nuisance. You couldn't get anywhere.) Eventually, word reached us that the schools would be meeting the next day to begin recovery work in the various buildings. Thank goodness there were enough volunteers (even the military came) to help the individual home owners, as the school staff would begin work at the schools. As you can see in the pictures below, entire blocks of homes were wiped out.

On the 2nd morning after the tornado, school staff and volunteers met in our District Gym (one building still standing) for an informational meeting. Our Superintendent guaranteed us that school would start on time in August and wanted us to get the word out. We would be in trailers and there was a lot of work to do, but he wanted the kids and the community to know that our school was down, but not out. (And he was good to his word.) The approximate hundred volunteers were scolded by a board member for not dressing appropriately for the work that needed to be done. We were in shorts and tennis shoes, while we needed steel toe boots and jeans. When he noticed that our Superintendent and principals were in shorts, too, he apologized as he hadn't realized that the "important" people were dressed that way, too. (argh!) Eventually we would learn that only staff could enter the buildings to recover things. Others could take things from us once outside the building and load them onto trucks and trailers, but they couldn't enter the buildings. (The Mr., K, & L were to work outside the building in the 100+ temperatures for the next 3 days.)
We finally got into the buildings at noon. This was our first look inside. Work gloves were distributed, and each staff worked in their own buildings. We began salvaging electronics and historical items for the rest of this day. (There were about 25 staff members at the high school present, and most of these were women. Two men teachers had houses that had been destroyed and were swamped there. Two new men teachers, who hadn't even taught at the school yet, reported for duty and were invaluable help. We needed their muscle.) Computers, printers, LCD projectors, yearbooks, composite pictures, videos, valuable paintings, and school records from the past 100 years were all rescued. We ended this day exhausted, but with plans to return the next day. I remember sitting on the front steps of the school at the end of the day with other staff members and a few volunteers who remained. We were sweaty, filthy, and exhausted. None of us had signed on for this and we weren't getting paid, but the work had to be done and it had to be done by staff members.
This was the inside of my room. Custodians had been waxing my floors the day of the tornado, so all of my student desks and textbooks were in the hall. Those things fared a little better than the few things still left in my room.
The 3rd day after the tornado and 2nd work day in the school, we salvaged student desks and textbooks, musical instruments and band uniforms. The exhausting work of carrying these things to the volunteers out front seemed never ending. Inside the school, we had little idea of where things were going, but storage areas were being secured in nearby towns. We walked through halls of water, so our shoes were soaked. We had to wear hats to keep the small debris of glass, leaves, etc. from falling into our eyes. The temperatures were still over 100, and workers couldn't seem to get enough water. I could barely move at the end of this day. Slowly our staff had begun drifting away to other obligations, and we were down to a nucleus of about 15 or so who would continue the work of salvaging. At the end of this day, we were told to take tomorrow off--after all, it was Sunday and Father's Day. It was a good thing they reminded us! We were told to spend the day with our family. On Monday, we would begin again and rescue personal items, bulletin boards, white boards, the contents of our library, and any other things deemed necessary.
On Sunday, we didn't have a church to attend. The city attorney loaned us his small museum for services. After church, K, L, & I took the Mr. out for lunch--margaritas for everyone! When we got ready to pay, the waitress said it had already been covered. A couple of former students (married now), who had been there with their family, picked up our tab. I cried then. I cry just thinking about it now. The one thing that became very obvious to me is that tragedies reveal the true character of people. Kind and generous people are even kinder and more generous. Jerks will be jerkier. (Is that even a word?!) Those that take the easy way out, will do absolutely nothing and wait for everyone else to do what needs to be done. The hard working will work to the point of exhaustion. The selfish will only rescue their own things and leave everyone else to fend for themselves. Team players will always be team players. I saw many of my colleagues through new eyes. I work with some incredible people!
I honestly don't know what we would have done without the volunteers outside the building. I didn't know most of them. (The Mr. was in charge of organizing them, and he didn't know many of them either. ) Some came from other towns, while others were graduates of our school from the years before we started teaching here. They formed book brigades, stowed computers, bulletin boards and white boards, made room in storage pods for file cabinets, and hauled table after table and desk after desk. After 3 days of hard labor, most of our school things had been hauled out and stored. Work in town would continue for weeks and months, but most of the work inside of our old school building was done. There wasn't much left to do but demolition.
Tomorrow: some final haunting memories and then Part 5: our town today


Puna said...

Oh my goodness, so sorry about the devastation. It must have been heartbreaking to see your classroom.

2nd Cup of Coffee said...

Oh my word, that is just unbelievable. The classroom broke my heart, too, for some reason.

Gayle said...

Oh, Mrs. e., when you said that former students picked up your family's tab, I got all teary eyed, too.

2Thinks said...

Wow. You've chronicled this in a way that touches the heart of the reader. I'm looking forward to "Our Town Today"