May 22, 2011 was graduation day in Joplin, MO. The district superintendent, C.J. Huff, clearly recalled the celebration, which ran from 1 to 3 p.m. on a partly cloudy Sunday afternoon.
“They were talking about storms, but we always get storms in the summer months, so that’s nothing uncommon,” said Huff on Monday to an audience of members of the Long Island Schools Public Relations Association at Nassau BOCES in Westbury.
By 5:17 p.m. on graduation day, Huff heard the first tornado sirens. Two super cells had spawned a powerful tornado, one with wind speeds of 200 miles per hour, “which surprised everybody.”
Tornados usually bounce along the ground, appearing and disappearing. Not that day. “The tornado was on the ground for a full 32 minutes, and traveled six and a half miles,” said Huff.
Seven child-serving organizations in the area were deeply affected by the storm. The Joplin Schools District, which serves over 7,700 students in 10 buildings, was changed forever. “Irving Elementary School took a direct hit,” Huff said. “We lost the administration offices and the high school.” All of the school buildings suffered some damage.
The technology set-up for all the schools was powered from the basement, the realization of a “worst-case scenario,” since the lower levels were flooded. The ability to communicate by email, which was centered in the school’s protected internal server, rather than in cloud or web-based software, was gone.
But more than the loss of buildings was the loss of community, and people. Dr. Huff repeatedly choked up as he told the story, punctuated by a PowerPoint presentation that showed devastation beyond belief. “Little bitty toddlers were wandering around in the rubble, looking for their parents,” he said, and then looked down, unable to continue for a time. When he did, he said, “You who have had your districts damaged by Sandy have seen it. That look of hopelessness in people’s faces. The walking wounded.” The district lost seven children and one staff member in the storm, but thousands more were left without anything at all.
However, he stressed, “A lot of miracles happened that day in Joplin,” and in the days after, when relief poured in from everywhere -- a good deal of it coming from Long Island. “That’s why I wanted to come here and talk to you,” he said. “We want to pay it forward, to share what we’ve learned.”
The first step, said Dr. Huff, was to take stock of people. “Facebook was critical,” he said, “which is sort of ironic, since we probably all have blocks against it in our buildings.” But with limited cell reception and the servers down, through Facebook he was able to account for almost all of the student body and staff members within 48 hours of the storm.
Next was to take stock of the facilities -- and discourage tourism. “You know it happens after the storm is gone,” he said. “You get sight-seers. You have to find a way to keep them away from the areas where they could get hurt.”
In line with that, the following step was to secure the district’s valuables, “if safe and possible,” Huff said.
With that accomplished to the best of his ability, Dr. Huff said, “I suddenly found myself in a very lonely place, somewhere between what could never be again and what had yet to be envisioned.”
“So I asked myself two questions: What is the district’s role in this crisis, and what resources do we have available to help?” In addition to the school buidlings, 30 day cares were destroyed.
“Our community needed a goal, a focus, a vision of something beyond our current reality.”
As soon as it was possible, Dr. Huff commandeered the light-up sign in front of the high school, and started a countdown to the first day of school. “It was a very symbolic piece of communication,” signifying teamwork and sportsmanship, “and we had 84 days to go. I had made a vow that school would open on time.” He quoted Winston Churchill, “’When you’re going through Hell, keep going.’”
“August 17,” Dr. Huff said with tears of gratitude in his eyes, “was the greatest day of professional life.” The schools, in different shapes and forms, reopened on time, and almost the entire student body stayed in the district and came back on opening day.
“The students and the staff had not any closure,” he acknowledged. “School just ended with graduation,” with two weeks left of classes that were unfinished. “The reunification was so important,” he said. “It’s like the pressure valve went off that day because we actually accomplished something together and we were going to be okay.”
On a larger level, “it reaffirmed the importance of schools as an infrastructure of our community. Developing community is critical – building a sewer just takes a simple board majority, but building a better school takes a vote, which shows that schools have lost importance in the public eye somewhere along the road,” he said.
Of Sandy and relief funds, Dr. Huff expressed himself strongly. “They should be ashamed of their behavior in D.C. right now, and you guys can tell that story better than anybody,” he told the public relations group. Earlier that day, Dr. Huff had met with school superintendents from the districts most devastated by Sandy and had told them the same thing. “It’s your job, all of you, to collectively shame them in Washington.”
He also stressed the importance of mental health being stepped up in a crisis. “PTSD affects everyone. Suicide rates jump in the student body, the staff, the parents, after a disaster.” He shook his head. “I didn’t believe it could happen to us. But it did.”
Repercussions continue in Joplin even today, but the schools are strong. “There’s a new normal,” he said. “The disaster allowed the community to really take ownership of the school, to rebuild something we could all be proud of, to share in a true sense of community.”
“Be bold. It matters,” he said. “Celebrate daily. Communicate clearly. Chart the course. Put people first. Because the truth is, people don’t care how much you know. They want to know how much you care.”