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When Disaster Hits

By Brian Nadel | October November 2007
Greensburg, Kansas after the tornado.
Greensburg, Kansas after the tornado.

Torn apart by a tornado, Greensburg Kansas School District bounced back. Find out how.

    At approximately 9:45 PM on May 4, 2007, a small Kansas town was reduced to a pile of rubble. A Force 5 tornado swept down over Greensburg, located about 100 miles west of Wichita, and the 205 mile-per-hour winds tore apart buildings in a devastating blast. Within minutes only the town’s courthouse, concrete grain elevator, and a few houses on the outskirts were left standing. The town’s elementary and high school were flattened. School Superintendent Darin Headrick was having a very bad day.
    But by August 15, about three months after the tornado, Greensburg schools opened for the 2007–08 academic year with 196 children—74 percent of the student body in 2006. The district needed to replace just one teacher. Although classes and administrative offices were housed in rented trailers and students ate lunch at their desks, school was back in session and ready to roll. “It wasn’t perfect,” recalls Headrick, “but the kids and the teachers made the best of it. It gets better every day."
    Unfortunately, prior to the May 4 tornado, Headrick and Unified School District 422 didn’t have a disaster plan that covered chaos of this scope. “I don’t think anybody has a plan in place to accomplish rebuilding the magnitude of what we’ve had to go through,” he says. “Tornadoes have hit a house or a barn, but never a whole town.”
Some disasters are bound to catch administrators off guard—after all, who goes to bed expecting their entire district to be destroyed by dawn? Having a solid emergency plan in place is essential because it will enable a school system to get back on its feet sooner no matter the enormity of the disaster.
    A week after Greensburg’s tornado, people began to pick up the pieces at the schools—but there was little or nothing left worth salvaging. Headrick and his colleagues relied on text messaging to get the word out about the rebuilding. The area’s basic communications network was wiped out, and many Greensburg families were scattered across southern Kansas.
Luckily, all the permanent files and data survived, but the district had to start from scratch for everything else. “We had nothing,” says Headrick. “We had to get everything from pencils to computers. Everything.” The district contacted its prime vendors and placed orders with the ones that could meet its stringent delivery dates. Alternate suppliers were found for local ones blown out of business.
    Restoring the school’s Internet connection was paramount to the rebirth of Greensburg’s schools. About three weeks after the tornado struck, networking experts from nearby Fort Hays University started building a new Local Area Network. Rather than rewire the temporary structures, the school now has a wireless network supplied by Xirrus. The Westlake, California, company, which specializes in covering cities and campuses with wireless data, had a high-performance WiFi network set up in about a day. “We’ve still got a few dead spots in some classrooms,” says Headrick, “and we’re ironing out the last network issues.” The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when the school received 200 new tablet computers for student use.
    Construction has begun on a gym and cafeteria next to the trailers, and by next spring ground will be broken for a permanent school complex. “When all is said and done,” says Headrick, “we’re going to have a 21st-century school system. Everything we purchased has a long-term application too.” The bills are still being tallied, but the cleanup, construction, and new supplies are estimated to cost as much as $2.5 million, a sum that a small town devastated by a tornado could not afford. On top of a million dollars of insurance money, the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped with funding the relocation.
    Headrick’s top priority when everything is back to normal? Upgrade their disaster plan, just in case. @

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