By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
SMITHVILLE – Smithville’s school sat in tatters.
The EF-5 tornado that devastated this Monroe County on April 27, 2011, also hammered the campus that houses kindergarten through 12th-grade students.
Roofs were damaged on every building, and downed power lines wove multiple webs around the facilities. Trees were cracked, limbs were everywhere, fence posts were leveled, and goal posts and even tornado siren poles were bent. The twister leveled the school’s gymnasium, ripping open its roof and leaving its contents exposed to the elements.
Two years later, that campus is nearly ready for students again.
“I hope it is a lesson about resiliency,” said Monroe County Superintendent Scott Cantrell.
Since the storm, the school’s roughly 550 students have used several locations. Yet when they return in August, it will be to a familiar one. Every building on Smithville’s campus has been improved – some with fresh paint, floors and roofs, while others are brand new.
“We’ve always heard good things come to those who wait,” Cantrell said. “I think we’ve put together a nice set up for the school campus, and we’re just looking forward to having everyone back there and to having our normal again.”
All told, the construction and renovations cost close to $13 million, Cantrell said. That was funded from multiple sources, from grants to money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance companies to funding from the Legislature and donations from companies and individuals from across the nation.
“We wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do this on our own,” said Smithville Principal Chad O’Brian.
The most prominent structure on the campus is a concrete dome that will not only serve as the school’s gymnasium, but also will be a storm shelter for students and community members.
Expected to be completed by the end of October, the dome has 16 inches of concrete at its base and four at its top. Its rounded shape means it doesn’t have corners for gusts of wind to grab. It will have 800 seats, with room for more people on its floor, should another tornado threaten.
“You can’t build it where God can’t blow it away, but you can make plans to do the best you can with it,” O’Brian said.
Also among the new buildings is the elementary school facility, which had been totally destroyed. In a tribute to its history, wood from the former building was salvaged to form a floor at the school’s entrance. Also, the “Smithville Schools” arch along Highway 23 remains in place.
Other new structures include a band hall/ choir room, field house/ elementary gymnasium and concession stand. Much work was done to restore the football and baseball fields, and the agriculture and technology buildings were renovated, as were the junior high and high school facilities. A playground sits where the former gym once was, and a football practice field will soon be added nearby.
Some teachers have already moved stuff into their classrooms, but much work remains before school starts on Aug. 7. Teachers will report on Aug. 1.
“We have some cleaning up and unpacking to do this summer, but we’re glad to do it,” O’Brian said.