Laela Zaidi was at a friend’s house when the tornado barreled down on Joplin, Mo. on May 22. With rain and hail pounding the ground, she and her friends barely made it inside in time to crouch in a bathtub as the storm tore through the area.
When they came out, the neighborhood that had been standing before they took cover was in shambles. A third of Joplin, including Zaidi’s house, had been destroyed in a matter of minutes.
Zaidi, 15, is just one of more than 3,000 Joplin students whose homes were in the path of the tornado. The Joplin School District suffered damages that are estimated at $151 million, including the total destruction of the Joplin High School.
“That was something that really hit all of us, all of my friends who were there, that our high school was gone,” said Zaidi. “Your school is like your security belt.” (Hear more of her story in the video below.)
Though the physical buildings are in pieces, the school district has continued to act as a security belt for the Joplin community. Two days after the tornado, Joplin schools Superintendent C.J. Huff vowed to start the 2011-2012 school year on time on Aug. 17. He extended summer school by a month so that parents could have some relief while they pieced their lives back together.
For the last two months, architects and builders have worked at a breakneck pace to construct new classrooms in an industrial park, a mall and in old school buildings. Concrete tornado shelters that can sustain winds up to 250 mph now sit just outside the schools.
Of course, solid walls won’t be enough to heal the emotional damage wrought by the storm. But Debbie Fort, principal of Irving Elementary School, which was destroyed, says she and her staff are prepared for the inevitable breakdown.
“We had a little girl in summer school start crying one day and we said, ‘What’s wrong?’” Fort recalled. “And she said, ‘My birthday was May 22nd and I didn’t get to have my birthday party.’”
So they threw her a birthday party, complete with tiara and sash.
On Wednesday, after a summer of mourning and feverish planning, Huff will make good on his word. The start of the Joplin school year will return a sense of normalcy to the lives of many students, parents and teachers, as they continue to deal with their chaotic new reality.
This week on The Learning Curve, we look inside Joplin’s Irving Elementary School and the Joplin High School, as they prepare for the school year. We hear from Randy Turner, an eighth grade teacher at Joplin’s East Middle School, on the heartache and excitement of the new school year. We read a firsthand account from meteorologist Mike Bettes, who arrived in Joplin minutes after the tornado touched down. And, we get an explanation from The Weather Channel’s Dr. Greg Forbes on why this EF-5 tornado was so destructive.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.