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America’s Safe Schools Week: Recovery key when district struck by tornado

Posted: Oct 22, 2021
Categories: KSDE
Author: Ann Bush

Elementary/junior high, high schools leveled in 2007 Greensburg tornado

To highlight the importance of a safe and secure school setting, Gov. Laura Kelly has proclaimed Oct. 17-23 as America’s Safe Schools Week. The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) is highlighting school safety topics all week through news releases and social media posts on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday focused on Emergency Operations Plans (EOP), and Tuesday’s topic is mental health. Wednesday highlighted the nine drills all schools have to conduct, and on Thursday the focus was on a partnership between KSDE and other agencies to create a reporting tool for schools and communities. Today’s message is about the importance of a strong recovery plan.

Recovery

The EF-5 tornado that struck Greensburg at 9:45 p.m. Friday, May 4, 2007, took 11 lives, injured 63 people and caused about $250 million in damage - leveling about 95% of the town, including the elementary/junior high and the high school.

It left behind destruction and devastation and changed the lives of many of the 1,383 people living there at the time. There also were plenty of lessons learned, including the importance of a strong Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) with a recovery component.

Thomas Derstein was a freshman when the tornado hit Greensburg. His mom, Staci, was the principal of the elementary/junior high school and his father, Luke, was head of maintenance for Kiowa County Unified School District 422.

Staci Derstein remembers that May night quite vividly. Thomas was at a golf meet in Coldwater. Other students were at a track meet or in Salina for forensics. Storm chasers were gathered in Greensburg in anticipation of storms.

“It was eerie,” she said. “It felt awful outside.”

Luke Derstein headed to the schools to do preventative maintenance in case of a lightning strike. Eventually, all of the Derstein family members returned home that night and made their way to the basement shortly before the tornado struck.

“It was eight minutes of just …” Staci Derstein trailed off. “Yeah. It was so slow moving. Rain was dripping through our floorboards.”

When they were able to make it out of their basement, they discovered their home had no roof, the east wall was peeled off, all of the siding was destroyed and most of the houses around them were leveled.

The top two stories of the high school were completely gone and oil tanks from 6 miles away were found in the rubble. The grade school didn’t fare much better.

“The south end was just knocked flat,” Staci Derstein said. “We were just numb.”

But through the numbness, Derstein and other school administrators had to act quickly. Since it was near the end of the school year, they decided to cut the school year short and focus on planning for the following school year, which would start just a few months later in mid-August.

“It was a whirlwind and crazy summer,” she said. “But we knew the best thing was to bring the students back together.”

Organizations came in to help community members, including students, cope with the trauma of losing loved ones, their homes and all of their belongings. School administrators worked on securing temporary buildings for the upcoming school year and started to create a plan for rebuilding.

The district didn’t have a detailed EOP plan in place at the time of the tornado.

“Honestly, I don’t know how you plan for a complete disaster. You need to have a plan A, B and C,” said Derstein, who retired as district superintendent at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. “All of the decisions then had to be made rapid fire. They have a more detailed crisis plan in place now.”

 Jim Green, who now works as a safety school specialist for the Kansas State Department of Education’s Safe and Secure Schools team, spent time in Greensburg with the state’s Incident Management Team right after the 2007 tornado.

Together, school personnel and team members, including Green, were able to secure Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers to house students for the upcoming school year.

A good EOP or crisis plan covers five areas, Green and the U.S. Department of Education said. Those areas are prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery.

  • Prevention is the action schools and school districts take to prevent a threatened or actual incident from occurring.
  • Protection is the ongoing actions schools and school districts take to safeguard the school, students and staff members from an emergency event.
  • Mitigation focuses on actions schools and school districts take to eliminate or reduce the loss of life, injuries and property damage from an emergency event.
  • Response is putting the school’s and school district’s plans into place to effectively respond to an emergency event and provide for the immediate needs of students and staff members.
  • Recovery is teaming with community partners to restore educational programming; the physical environment; business operations; and social, emotional and behavioral health.

“Recovery is a mission area that we don’t always include in our exercises and drills,” Green said. “But when it comes down to it, recovery becomes one of the most important factors when you are trying to get back to normal or as close to normal as you can when reopening schools after a major incident.”

Recovery can be beneficial in small incidents, too, so it is important to have a plan in place for minor incidents.

Recovery in schools comprises four components, the U.S. Department of Education states in its Recovery Fact Sheet:

  1. Academics recovery. The ability to resume academic activities is essential to a school’s recovery.
  2. Physical and structural recovery. This type of recovery is needed to support education and involves the restoration of the school’s buildings, equipment, and supplies.
  3. Business functions recovery. The school’s or school district’s business operations that also serve as a support function to education, such as payroll and contracts, need to be fully restored if impacted by an emergency.
  4. Social, emotional and behavioral recovery. Even though academics, physical and structural, and business functions recovery may have ended, the social, emotional and behavioral recovery of students, teachers and staff members may continue long after.

Recovery was key in Greensburg; Chapman, which had a devastating tornado just a year after Greensburg; and Harveyville, which was struck by an EF-2 tornado in 2012.

School personnel from Chapman and Harveyville were able to use lessons learned in Greensburg to speed up their recovery processes and make things run even smoother, Green said. That’s an important step, he said – don’t be afraid to reach out to others who have been through the same experience. Also, districts should keep a digital and hard copy of their EOPs or crisis plans on hand along with a checklist.

“It will get you started in the right direction,” he said.

In Greensburg, school started in mid-August that year. There were about 15 FEMA trailers set up for pre-K through 12th-grade students. There was no access to a cafeteria for the first few months.

“We had cold meals for lunch from the beginning of school through the second week of November,” Derstein said. “On Fridays, we grilled hamburgers. It didn’t matter. Everyone was just happy to be together.”

That first year, Derstein often served as a substitute so her staff members could deal with contractors or other needs while they were rebuilding their own homes. She also transported students when needed. And while teachers taught academics, they also knew when students needed to focus on social-emotional aspects.

“Things were tough,” Derstein said. “They were challenging. They were rewarding. Teachers adapted to what students needed. I felt like that was a strength for our staff. We saw the good in people every day.”

It took three years and nearly $50 million to finish the school. The two schools were combined into one large school.

Remember Thomas Derstein, son of Staci and Luke Derstein? He was a freshman when the tornado hit the town. He spent his sophomore, junior and senior years in the modular classrooms – never stepping foot as a student into the new school. His mother thought he would leave Greensburg to attend college and never return.

He now walks the halls of the rebuilt school - not as a student, but as a math teacher. Many of his classmates have returned to their hometown, too. They have opened businesses or moved back to raise families.

“I think people are pretty much healed,” Staci Derstein said. “But I think the tornado changed a lot of kids’ perspectives. I feel like the people who chose to stay and rebuild are invested in this community.”

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