Ringing in a Recovery

If any kids in the U.S. are thinking about school in the middle of this sweltering August, it’s probably with a brief moment of dread that their summer of fun will end in a few weeks.

Not so in Joplin, MO, where students across the city eagerly flocked to new facilities this week to begin their school year.

The last school year in Joplin ended abruptly on May 22, when a 200-m.p.h. tornado ripped through the heart of town. The mile-wide twister flattened or severely damaged nine schools, including Joplin High School.

The May 22 storm was the deadliest twister to hit the U.S. in more than a century, killing 160 people and leaving a 12-mile-long path of destruction. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed, forcing hundreds of residents in this city of 50,000 to move into temporary trailers and other shelters.

The tornado hit on a Sunday, a few hours after Joplin High finished its graduation ceremony, which was held at a local university two weeks before the official end of the school year. Thankfully, all school buildings in Joplin were empty when the tornado tore through. But among the storm’s victims in the thousands of homes that were destroyed were seven students and one school system staffer.

Even while they were still assessing the damage in the hours after the tornado struck, Joplin’s can-do residents rolled up their sleeves and began to rebuild. Within two days of the disaster, Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff announced that, without a doubt, schools would reopen on schedule on Aug. 17.

And they did.

This week, a new Joplin High School opened its doors in a facility that was constructed in just 55 days in a vacant department store at the back of a shopping mall. While some of the classroom configurations differ from traditional blackboard and desk schoolrooms, the new Joplin High comes fully loaded with flat-screen TVs and a laptop for every student.

Temporary modular facilities also opened to replace the eight elementary schools that were damaged during the storm. According to news reports, six of Joplin’s 18 schools were so badly damaged they will be razed. Despite the widespread displacement, 6,978 students were marked present for the first day of school on Wednesday, just 750 less than the enrollment at the end of last year.

Joplin’s teachers decided to make Wednesday’s opening a celebration of recovery, so no special memorials were held on the first day of school. The school district said it has hired additional counselors to deal with lingering trauma and grief.

However, one grim reminder of the tornado could not be avoided on the opening day of the new school year in Joplin:

Teachers at the modular facility that has become the new Irving Elementary School took their students on a tour of four new concrete storm shelters that were built into the ground next to the school’s playground.