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destruction - roofsAn Encounter with Derecho

Two weeks away to welcoming students back, and things were finally falling into place. Yet soon, this very school would be falling apart.It was a dark and stormy night….no, wait...it was a bright, beautiful, warm, summer early afternoon in eastern Iowa! Within a few minutes on August 10, it became dark, rainy, and windy. But this was not merely a storm or quickly passing tornado, this was a derecho with 140 mph sustained winds!

Six Central Lutheran staff members were getting ready for the school year inside our building on the western edge of Newhall. In two weeks, school would finally be in session with in-person learning for the first time since March. Teachers were getting classrooms ready, administration had COVID protocols in place, and our new fourth grade teacher’s classroom had a fresh coat of paint. Two weeks away to welcoming students back, and things were finally falling into place. Yet soon, this very school would be falling apart.

Around 12:30 p.m. that day, the Newhall sirens went off, warning residents to take cover due to high winds and a possible tornado. Our six staff members gathered in the hallway listening to the steadily growing wind. Ceiling tiles began popping up and down, the roof creaked and groaned, and then suddenly the wind ripped off the roof of the small gym/cafeteria. The frightened staff members huddled in a nearby bathroom and were alarmed by a strong odor of natural gas. The dislodged roof had ruptured gas lines in the small gym. The staff moved to the front doors of the building in search of fresh air, only to discover their vehicles rocking side to side and debris blowing all around the parking lot toward the building. Staff members begged for help from emergency services, loved ones, and me, their principal (who was riding out the storm in his truck just a block away).

Entering our building was like walking into a disaster movie. We met with an overwhelming odor of gas, a screeching fire alarm, and no electricity.insulation hanging from the ceilingForty-five harrowing minutes later, the derecho winds finally died down, the rain relented, and the bulk of the damage had been done. When the storm finally subsided, help arrived to free the staff trapped in the building. The six brave CLS staff members made their way to the school secretary’s nearby house, where I joined them. We soon walked back to the school. Entering our building was like walking into a disaster movie. We met with an overwhelming odor of gas, a screeching fire alarm, and no electricity. We picked our way carefully around scattered debris and shattered glass and made our way down the hallway to the second grade classroom. In the corner of the recently decorated room, we found a portion of the small gym’s roof with daylight streaming in behind it. Our second grade teacher just stood in the doorway with tears running down her cheeks as we gazed in horror at the rubble that was now her classroom.

From that destroyed room, we made our way down the hallway and discovered a deluge of water on the now sopping carpeted floor. The computer lab had water on every surface. As much as no one wanted to go into the small gym, we had to. Standing in the middle of the small gym and looking up, we saw the sky because the entire roof was gone. Water had flooded the area, and two large ceiling heaters were now on the floor. The force of the wind had been so powerful that the heavy, brown, metal fire doors that opened from the small gym into the activity center were bent and now opened the wrong way into the gym instead of away from it. With increasing alarm at the damage, we discovered that the storm had strewn the PTL and seasonal items stored above the small gym’s stage area across the gym floor, across the top of the building, and into the neighbor’s yard.

“Would we have school in person?” If so, when would that take place? We had waited since March and now … well, we knew we would have to wait longer. Once we had school in person, where in the world would it be?

sunset over hthe destructionSince that August afternoon, workers discovered asbestos in the ceiling tiles and the carpet glue in the hallway. Water/moisture was everywhere in the walls of the hallways and classrooms. Three feet of drywall from the ground up was cut out of the classrooms, hallways, and bathrooms to replace the saturated walls before mold set in. The small gym roof that had been ripped off and broken into pieces was seemingly everywhere, some landing in the second grade classroom, some lying on the roof of the school and poking holes in the roof of the adjoining building, some in our neighbor’s yard as well as in his house. All of those huge chunks of roof debris had to be cleaned up and disposed of. Glass pieces and shards from broken windows covered the floors and lawns.

We wouldn’t know the entirety of the damage to the roof until later in August when it rained for six straight days.We wouldn’t know the entirety of the damage to the roof until later in August when it rained for six straight days. Rain came in through the roof and ceilings of classrooms and through the roofless small gym, causing even more damage. Not surprisingly, those classrooms also had asbestos tile, so that flooring also needed to be replaced. Without power for ten days and no generators available, the food in the freezers, teachers’ refrigerator, and concessions fridge was ruined and had to be disposed.

While the roof structure of the main building was essentially intact, many shingles were torn off during the derecho. Workers placed tarps over those spots to try to keep water out, but they still needed to replace large areas of shingles. In late August, our teachers were finally allowed into the now designated “disaster area” to see their rescued items all boxed up in the gym. It was an emotional time as tears trickled down their faces and again, the question was repeated over and over: “When will we have school in person with our students?”

We planned to have in-person school with our three-year-old preschool through eighth-grade students. We were grateful to our local public school, Benton Community, for offering us the use of one of their empty buildings. Two of our LCMS congregations, St. John Newhall and St. Stephens Atkins, opened their doors for us to hold in-person school. Yes, Central Lutheran School would hold classes in three different places at the beginning of our school year, but our mission would be the same—assisting our parents and congregations in preparing our children to be disciples. Same mission, just done in different places! Oh, and let’s throw in all the plans that needed readjustment to keep students safe from COVID-19! That really had almost become a second thought after the storm hit!

Many parents, community residents, and congregational members kept asking, “What can we do to help?” …God made sure that many hands made light work. CLS started school on September 14, three weeks after originally planned. However, we had a lot to accomplish before we could start. Many parents, community residents, and congregational members kept asking, “What can we do to help?” We had hired a company to do all of the clean-up and reconstruction, but on Sunday, September 6, we put our volunteers to work helping move all of our teaching and office items to our three new locations. Who would show up? Anyone? Yes, God made sure that many hands made light work.

clean up beginsTwo semi-truck trailers, two flatbed trailers, and close to 100 people (alumni, congregational members, grandparents, parents, and even community members) showed up to help. What a blessing to see all those determined and helpful faces! A huge assembly line took things out of classrooms and the big gym and put them on the semi-truck trailers and flatbeds. Once we arrived at the different schools, another assembly line took the cargo from the trailers to the classrooms and office. Two hours later, we were finished!

Now the teachers focused on getting their rooms and lesson plans ready at Van Horne, Atkins, and Newhall. In fact, some staff had told me they wished we could have started even sooner. You could tell they were excited about being with the students they had missed for six months. We even scheduled a day when parents and students could come in and drop off their items and see what their room would look like—their new “home away from home.”

Finally, the big day came, September 14: the First Day of School! We were delighted to see so many smiling faces—students, teachers, and many parents. In the meantime, at the CLS site, crews stripped the rooms bare. They removed the small gym roof from the second grade classroom and the roof of the school building. Quite the task for a crew of five workers with crowbars, saws, and small equipment.

As this is being written, workers are replacing the drywall and insulation in the classrooms and hallway. They restored the electricity and the Wi-Fi. They will repaint the walls within the next couple of weeks. The tile floors of the preschool, kindergarten, first grade room, and resource room will be abated soon. Then the “fun” part of reconstruction will begin: new lockers with school colors, freshly painted hallways and offices, and a new tile floor for the hallway will make things like new again.

But people keep asking, “When will we be one CLS family again, under one roof?” That question is still to be answered. Through the whole process, however, God has been good as we continue to move forward in faith. Forward in Faith was our planned theme for the school year and is now our rebuilding theme as well. We wait patiently for the roof to be back on the small gym. We know it will also need new tile.

circle gameWe know our refurbished Lutheran school will be a better place for students to learn about Jesus and His love for them. We greatly appreciate the donations from Lutheran schools and congregations across the country. We also greatly appreciate the cards, letters, and prayers that are lifting our spirits to the Lord. We have put together a special video to thank everyone for their offerings, cards, and prayers. We established a Go Fund Me page to accept donations.

 

Our Lord is larger than the storm, mightier than the wind, and is our true Light in the darkness.We are reminded that though the storm rages, the wind howls, and the lights are doused, it is only for a moment. Our Lord is larger than the storm, mightier than the wind, and is our true Light in the darkness. Keep up with our updates at www.gocougarsgo.com and our Facebook Central Lutheran School page.

Frank Parris is currently serving as principal at Central Lutheran School in Newhall, Iowa. He has served for 30 years in the ministry, 20 as administrator. God has used him to serve children, staff, parents, and congregations in Lutheran schools in Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Illinois, and North Carolina.

Photos courtesy Central Lutheran School, Newhall, Iowa.