Skip navigation
Rendering of an elementary and middle school being rebuilt in Joplin Missouri Rendering by Hollis + Miller Architects and Joplin School District
<p> After a tornado destroyed much of Joplin, Mo., in 2011, an elementary and middle school is being rebuilt.</p>

Recovering from Tragedy (with Related Video)

Schools and universities must move forward after catastrophes to make sure students continue to learn and grow.

On April 27, 2011, officials with the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) city school system had been alerted to the possibility of severe weather — the forecast called for storms, possibly tornados.

"We called off school the day of the storm because of the threats," says Jeff Johnson, executive director of facilities for Tuscaloosa City Schools. "But we didn't think anything this bad would happen."

What happened was a tornado with winds of up to 200 miles an hour ripped through the area, killing more than 60 people and causing damage estimated at more than $2 billion.

One elementary school in Tuscaloosa was destroyed, and another campus that housed an elementary and a middle school, sustained severe damage. Since the tornado, students have been relocated to other campuses, and school district officials have come together with others — city and state officials, community leaders, volunteers — to develop a plan that will rebuild the damaged school campuses.

"This has brought us together," says Johnson. "Before this happened, we were cooperative, but everybody kind of had his own game plan. But since the tornado, it has just been a phenomenal effort. It amazes me every time I think about it."

Better and stronger

When a catastrophe strikes a community, the response of those affected may vary. But whether it's a hurricane like the one that decimated the Gulf Coast in 2005, deadly violence like the attack at Virginia Tech in 2007, or killer tornados like those that cut a path of destruction last year through Tuscaloosa and Joplin, Mo., the schools in those communities have little choice but to push forward and transform a traumatic situation into an opportunity for improvements.

After administrators determine that a school has been rendered unusable because of a catastrophe, their first duty is to quickly find a place for students to continue their schooling. In Tuscaloosa, the storm destroyed Alberta Elementary School, and left University Place middle and elementary schools with enough damage that students could not return there. In Tuscaloosa, once accommodations were found in buildings with underutilized classrooms or through the acquisition of temporary modular facilities, district officials turned their attention to more permanent space solutions.

The district plans to carry out renovations at the University Place campus so that both the elementary and middle schools can reopen in 2013. But at Alberta, rather than build a new school at an accelerated pace, district officials have adopted a more deliberate process that looks not just at the immediate space needs of the district, but also the vision of city officials and other community leaders for the future of the neighborhood that Alberta served.

"We've talked about making the school site more accessible and making it more green so it can have a more positive effect on the community," says Johnson. "It's only about three-quarters of a mile from the main University (of Alabama), so we think it could be very inviting for new housing."

A new school can be built closer to the neighborhood's main thoroughfare because structures that had been there were leveled in the tornado. The city has purchased land in the area and may work with the school district to build a city park near the new Alberta. In addition, city park officials hope to create a greenway trail called CityWalk that generally would follow the path that the destructive tornado took through the city and end at the planned site for Alberta Elementary.

While discussions continue with the community about the best kind of school to serve the area, the district plans to conduct a demographic study to see how many students and families intend to return to the area that had been served by Alberta. The more extensive planning means that a new Alberta Elementary wouldn't be ready for students until 2014.

"Shopko High"

Less than a month after Tuscaloosa experienced the devastation from a deadly tornado, an even more lethal twister devastated Joplin, Mo. More than 160 people died in the May 22, 2011, storm — what has been called the worst U.S. tornado in more than 50 years. Several schools were destroyed or seriously damaged, most notably the town's only high school.

While still searching for missing persons and grieving those that had been killed, district officials made a promise to those who remained: Schools would open as scheduled on Aug. 17.

Officials decided based on the spaces available that the high school would have to be split into two campuses — one for grades 9 and 10, and one for grades 11 and 12. The site found for the upper grades was at the Northpark Mall — a vacant 96,000-square-foot big-box site that formerly housed a Shopko store, and before that, a Venture store. The district had to convince the anchor stores in the mall that the school and its students could be accommodated with minimal disruption to the mall's retail operations.

By the time a lease was signed for the mall space, the architects for the project, DLR Group and Corner Greer & Associates, had 55 days to get the space ready for students to arrive. The architects had to work quickly while staying mindful that many of the staff members and community leaders they needed to consult with may have lost loved ones or seen their homes destroyed.

"We had to be sensitive to what was happening with people at home," says Jim French, DLR Group senior principal.

To expedite the process and make Joplin school district staff members more comfortable with the process, DLR architects from Kansas City and Florida moved to Joplin for several weeks and set up operations in a middle school that also was serving as the district's temporary administrative headquarters.

"Because we were right there, they knew we were working on it, and they were available to answer questions every morning for as long as we needed," says French.

The short schedule gave architects the leeway to be more creative. "There was less second guessing because of the time frame," says French. "They trusted that we would get the job done."

Despite the rushed schedule, district officials and architects wanted the school to be more than just a bare-bones facility.

"They said, 'Instead of getting us what we have now, let's turn this into a great opportunity.' We adopted an incubator approach. We could try things out, and if something wasn't working right, we knew it wasn't permanent."

The school was divided into six "centers of knowledge," each of which has workshop space for large or small groups. The layout, which includes movable furniture and connectivity for technology, enables teachers to collaborate more easily and students to learn through interdisciplinary approaches.

The first year in the mall space, which some have dubbed "Shopko High," has been deemed a success.

"The interim space is working so well that potentially the district could keep using it," says French.

New buildings

Insurance proceeds, federal and state funding, and donations from around the world provided the Joplin district with about $123 million. But the budget to replace the space lost in the tornado came to $185 million. The district asked voters to approve a bond issue for the $62 million shortfall, and the proposal passed in April.

The high school, which will be combined with a district technology center, is projected to cost $104 million and is scheduled to open in 2014.

"The new school is going to have a lot of the concepts we are using (in the interim high school)," says French. DLR Group and Corner Greer are designing the new high school.

Joplin also has broken ground on a new Irving Elementary School and on a campus that will hold both a new East Middle School and an as-yet unnamed elementary.

John Brown, an architect with Hollis + Miller Architects, which is designing the East Middle School and the adjacent elementary, says that even before they were selected for the project, staff members from the firm had gone to Joplin and stayed a couple of weeks to help with the recovery effort.

"It gave us a sense of what it was like for them to have gone through," says Brown, "and gave us perspective on how we could help them. They really reacted to the tornado with great resolve. There was no quit. They were determined to make the tornado into a positive."

By connecting the middle and elementary on the same campus, the district will save money on building systems and food services. The shared campus also will enable students at one of the schools to take advantage of resources at the other. Among the distinctive elements of the campus are a lighthouse that will welcome students at the front of the middle school, and an area called the "learning stairs," an informal space where students can study or just hang out and socialize.

"They let us know the things that were important to pull into their schools," says Brown.

East Middle School is projected to cost $27 million, and the adjacent elementary is projected to cost $14.3 million. Those schools also are expected to open in 2014.


Sidebar: Wind damage

At their most powerful, tornadoes and hurricanes can flatten a school facility and turn building components to rubble. But other storms with high winds still can inflict serious damage to a school. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's "Design Guide for Improving School Safety in Earthquakes, Floods and High Winds" spells out the most common kinds of damage high winds from a tornado or hurricane can do to a school facility:

  • Damage to roof coverings (including rooftop mechanical, electrical, and communications equipment) is the most common type of wind damage. For instance, wind can lift metal edge flashing on a roof and pull off the built-up membrane on the roof.

  • Exterior glazing damage is common, often from being struck by airborne debris.

  • Damage to wall coverings, soffits and large doors is common during hurricanes and tornadoes, but less common during other storms, the guide says.

  • Collapse of non-load-bearing exterior walls is common during tornadoes, but is less common during other storms.

  • Structural damage (roof deck blow-off, collapse of the roof structure, collapse of exterior bearing walls, or collapse of the entire building or major portions thereof) is the principal type of damage that occurs during strong and violent tornadoes, the guide says.

View the guide online at

Sidebar: Clean, dry and safe

When 3.5 inches of rain falls in just 40 minutes, and the water doesn't have anywhere to drain, it's going to stay around for a while. That's what happened in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 10, 2010 — the culmination of three days of heavy rain. The water could not be contained by Squaw Creek, which flows through Ames across the Iowa State University campus. On Aug. 11, the creek crested at more than 18 feet — 8 feet higher than flood stage.

"It happens quickly," says David Miller, associate vice president for facilities, planning and management at Iowa State. "There wasn't much time to prepare."

By the time the rain subsided, flood waters had poured into 17 campus structures that accounted for 684,500 square feet of space. Another 35 structures sustained water damage from backed-up storm sewers or surface water that was far away from the creek.

Meanwhile, thousands of students were preparing to descend on campus two weeks later for the fall semester.

"It required quite an emergency response," says Miller.

In 1993, the last time Iowa State had experienced such severe flooding, the university used its own workers to clean up affected facilities. Experience had taught administrators to bring in outside help.

"In 1993, we did it ourselves," says Miller. "We had muck and stuff around everywhere, and I couldn't go anywhere without my boots on. The way we did it this time was far more effective. We needed to have buildings that were clean, dry and safe."

A cleaning company deployed crews and equipment to Ames and began pumping out the water, and removing the mud and mold from the facilities.

The most severely affected buildings were the Lied Recreation Athletic Center, which had more than 2 feet of water on its first floor; the Scheman Building, a conference center that had more than 4 feet of water on its ground floor; and the Hilton Coliseum, the university's sports arena, where the floor was under more than 12 feet of standing water.

Because of the massive response, the university was able to begin its fall 2010 semester without delays. Fixing Hilton Coliseum took longer, but workers had made enough progress so that the arena could be host to the season's opening basketball game in November 2010.

In addition to the immediate cleanup response, Iowa State also re-examined its flood-prevention strategies to see if improvements were warranted.

"We had to look at every opening in all these buildings — every conduit, every storm sewer," says Miller.

Among the steps taken: replacing some glass and metal wall panels with concrete and increasing the thickness of the basement walls in the Scheman Building to 18 inches from 8 inches.

Since the 1993 floods, Iowa State has not built any sizable structures in the parts of campus prone to flooding, Miller says. Looking forward, a flood task force is studying whether there have been shifts in rainfall amounts and intensity that would require further flood-prevention steps.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Related Video

Watch this video about the state of Joplin one year later.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.