The author, Gary Adkins, is IASB director/editorial services and editor of Illinois School Board Newsbulletin.
One of the largest November tornado outbreaks in years tore across Illinois and six nearby states on Sunday, Nov.17, 2013. The resulting $1 billion in property damage, loss of life and disruption in the way of normal life have been extremely hard on families, health care providers, emergency responders, businesses, cities, counties, and of course, school districts. Recovery remains incomplete for the hardest-hit communities and schools, particularly for those in Washington and Gifford. Even now, 10 months after the storms, debris is still being cleared, building and repairs continue, the toll on financial resources and emotions is rising, and a new school year begins with the ongoing uncertainties of school safety.
There has been ample reporting on what happened that day, but the most significant aspects to these storms were their timing, intensity and scope.
The timing of the event, hitting in mid-November, was highly unusual. The tornadoes were the first storms ever recorded in November with an EF4 rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale (see key, page 7). Of course, a tornado can strike at any time of year and at any place on earth. That these particular storms struck on a Sunday, when schools were unoccupied, undoubtedly reduced the number of potential injuries and fatalities. It was reported that many of those whose homes were destroyed were at church and out of the tornado paths when they hit residential neighborhoods that morning and afternoon.
The number of tornadoes and their locations were also unusual. The National Weather Service issued nearly 150 tornado warnings that day. Official warnings were issued for the same tornado multiple times after separate sightings were reported; nonetheless, a total of 73 separate tornadoes were finally confirmed, making it the fourth-largest outbreak of tornadoes on record in Illinois. Twisters were also confirmed that day in Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. But the most powerful and most damaging storms occurred in Illinois, killing eight people.
The EF4 that tore through Washington, located near Peoria in IASB’s Central Illinois Valley division, struck with winds estimated at 190 miles per hour. That’s where the greatest total property damage from the tornado outbreak occurred, along with one death and 122 injuries. The later deaths of two citizens were attributed to the injuries each suffered in the Washington tornado. The other EF4 hit New Minden, located near Centralia in the Egyptian division, killing two people and injuring two more.
Several EF3 tornadoes blasted across the state that day, as well, including one in Gifford, a town of about 975 people located 15 miles northeast of Champaign in the Illini division. There, the twister tore through the center of town, destroying 30 homes with winds of up to 125 miles per hour. Another EF3 storm struck Brookport, a town of about 1,000 located on the Ohio River near Metropolis, in IASB’s Shawnee division, where the tornado killed three people and destroyed dozens of homes.
As of mid-August of this year, total damage has been estimated at $1.067 billion, with $935 million of that loss accounted for in Washington. And while private insurance is expected to cover most of it, local officials are concerned state money in the form of disaster relief won’t be nearly enough to take care of other related recovery costs.
“We’re going to continue to beat this thing,” said Washington Mayor Gary Manier in a recent interview with WICS Newschannel20. “We’re close to 50 percent of the permitting process of the 1,108 homes damaged.” That number is now closer to 70 percent as work continues.
Manier anticipates Washington governmental units will receive about $20 million of $45 million in dedicated state aid that is earmarked to recover from all the tornadoes. While generous, $20 million is not going to cover all expenses, which will also be affected by future tax revenues. Because so many homes and businesses were lost, property tax revenue will be lower for at least the next two years, or until all of the buildings are rebuilt and occupied, and property values restored.
“Our loss is actually because of property tax,” Manier continued. “Those homes are no longer there. Their tax bills will be a lot less for the next two years. Until they are all rebuilt, we are going to miss that property tax and that’s going to impact our schools, library and park districts.”
Overall, Tazewell County supervisor of assessments Gary Twist estimates that Washington lost an estimated 12 to 15 percent of equalized assessed value for the 2014 levy (for taxes owed in 2015). That’s lower than the 47 percent originally estimated, but still a serious financial burden. At Washington CHSD 308, for example, 58 percent of the district’s operating budget of $15.6 million is derived from local taxes. If these numbers hold true, based on estimates as of last year, the result could mean a $1.35 million hit to District 308. That is on top of a loss in state funding that has been cut $750,000 in just the past three years.
Of the three districts in Washington that had extensive losses, taxpayers in Central SD 51 pick up the highest proportion (64 percent) of the local budget. That means that the $9 million budget could take an $860,000 hit.
“We don’t have control of either one of those,” added Washington SD 52 Superintendent John Tignor, in an April 2014 WICS Newschannel 20 interview. Regarding the potential loss in property tax revenue, Tignor said that depends largely on the 2014 construction season that is ending soon. “We’ll get a picture as the building season continues and we are able to get a better idea of what the rebuild rate might be.”
Although individuals and business could receive federal funds after the tornadoes, FEMA denied the state’s request for assistance to local governments. But even if that request had been granted, replacing lost tax revenue is not something the Federal Emergency Management Agency does, according to FEMA spokeswoman Deanna Frazier.
“It has to be physical damage,” Frazier says.
Attendance, enrollment and transportation
In District 308, 116 high school students (or about 10 percent of enrollment) and 15 staff members lost their homes. The campus re-opened four days after the tornado struck.
District 52 lost 293 homes, displacing 127 students and their families. School was closed for five days.
The other grade school district affected by the tornado, Central SD 51, lost homes and school property. Twenty-three of 150 staff members, including Superintendent Chad Allaman, were displaced by the twister, as were 140 of 1,279 students. The district closed its two schools through the Thanksgiving Holiday and reopened Dec 3. In addition to the damage to residences, about $150,000 in direct damage was caused to the roofs of Central Intermediate School and Central Primary School. Much of the repair work was completed in December, 2013, during the winter break.
According to school officials, enrollment trends in the three Washington districts have remained consistent and do not appear to be impacted by the tornadoes. District 52 actually increased by six students during the school year.
A fourth local district, Washington SD 50, was minimally affected by the tornado, and school resumed there after three days.
Because of so many displaced students, the school districts have had to deal with additional transportation costs in order to accommodate students who moved to nearby communities for an extended time (see page 12).
Tornado damage and the brutal winter weather that followed caused the area districts to call off classes for as many as 14 school days. Only the five allotted emergency days were made up in District 51. Days missed throughout Illinois eventually were deemed “Act of God” days by the Illinois State Board of Education, which meant they did not detract from state aid under the funding formula, which is based on attendance days
Gifford CCSD 188, a district of 218 students, sustained direct tornado damage to the roof of its bus barn. Although only moderate damage to three of the district’s five buses was reported, the district planned to build a new garage, at a cost of $220,000, and replace one older bus. Most of the cost will be paid by district reserve funds. Superintendent Rod Grimsley told the Rantoul Press on July 27 that if there are still children living outside the school district who were displaced by the tornado, the district will continue to transport them to school, as required under state law.
“All but one or two families had their plans for residency back in Gifford figured out before school ended in June,” Grimsley said. “We are continuing to work with families to help them as much as possible.”
While visible scars of the disaster are beginning to fade, the emotional wounds can remain raw, particularly for school children.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the lingering mental health impacts of living through tornadoes can leave children feeling traumatized for months, if not years. Psychologists label this post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, which is triggered by any disturbing outside event and may have long-term effects. PTSD is a condition in which traumatized individuals “can’t stop remembering.”
Tornado watches and warnings, severe thunderstorms and even dark clouds can trigger bad memories for some. For years to come, Washington or Gifford children (and adults) may experience reliving the fears and other emotions of the day the tornado roared through their towns.
Experts say tornados threaten the usual assumptions of safety because their paths are erratic. In some neighborhoods, certain houses are completely leveled, while others sustain little damage. This inconsistent pattern can cause feelings of guilt in those spared, or unfairness in those recovering.
Mental health professionals say they have witnessed many different emotional reactions in children and adults exposed to a severe tornado, including feelings of insecurity, unfairness, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, despair and worries about the future.
Nightmares, falling grades, regression, even self-harm can sometimes result. There may also be problems with absenteeism, self-medication and recklessness among older students. Counseling is sometimes indicated.
Anticipating the next event
As last November’s widespread tornado outbreak demonstrated, every school district in Illinois faces severe weather risks, and the costs associated with preparation.
In Illinois, legislation has been approved by the house and senate requiring storm shelters in newly-built school facilities; which could add $1 million to new-construction costs. Experts warn that retrofitting shelters may not be the best solution for existing schools.
One of the first steps in identifying the best available shelter options in a school is to determine to what degree one is needed. This may include a vulnerability assessment geared toward extreme wind events. The assessment of the threat level is based on the probability of an occurrence of an extreme wind event of a specific magnitude at a specific location (see page 20).
Harold Brooks, an expert on tornado science and statistics at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, told the New York Times in an April 29, 2014 story why communities in tornado-prone areas should not necessarily tear down all their schools and construct reinforced buildings:
“[For] new construction, I’d do it [just like in homes]. Otherwise, it’s not a particularly cost-effective way of saving lives. Around here, about 10 percent of tornadoes occur during school hours. The most in any state is around 20 percent, for Alabama. If you’re interested in protecting lives, you need to focus on where people are when tornadoes hit, which is most likely at home. Nationally, we’ve averaged about one death per year in the last 55 years. In school transportation vehicles (buses and vans, not kids being taken to and from school in their family vehicle), around 16 kids 5 to 18 years old are killed per year, and 14 high school students die directly or indirectly as a result of football.”
Regardless of the rarity of deaths from tornadoes at school, because of their potential danger it is wise for schools to prepare for them, according to Steve Satterly, director of school safety and transportation at the CSC Southern Hancock County, Indiana. He suggests developing a written plan that allows the school the capability to pre- emptively close ahead of severe weather warnings received from an Emergency Management Agency director. Such plans spell out, in writing, under what conditions school may be released early. If one is not currently used, schools may obtain and properly test a reverse 911 system or emergency notification system to instantly communicate with parents.
Danville CCSD 118 schools recently approved the use of an app designed and maintained by a Jostens company, based in Oklahoma. According to Danville webmaster DeWayne Towe, “Their big selling point as far as how it works was when the tornado came through Moore, Okla. It was the end of the school day, [and] administration sent out a notification to parents: ‘Your kids are safe, they’ve all taken shelter, the buses aren’t running, do not come to the school.’ Once the tornado passed, they were to send out another notification to parents.”
Public schools are required by the Illinois State Board of Education to conduct severe weather drills once a year. Many school districts do so more often. Darien SD 61, for example, leads students in drills in September, soon after the school year begins, and again in March, at the start of tornado season.
During those drills, an announcement is made. Students go — as a class — to a designated site. For most classes in the suburban Chicago district, that site is one of the school’s learning centers. Students get on the floor, generally in the kneeling position, duck their heads down and cover the back of their necks. Teachers take attendance to see that all the students are accounted for. If all students are there, the teacher holds up a green sheet of paper. If someone is missing, a red sheet is held up and staffers talk by radio as they check for that student.
Officials say students need to feel safe, and conducting drills is an important part of that.
“We like to let people know we have security plans in place, severe weather plans in place, so when something happens, it’s not a new event for us. We try to keep the children as calm as possible, as if it’s a routine matter,” District 61 Superintendent Robert Carlo said.
Plans and drills aside, Carlo said that even though his district’s three schools are safe, “for any tragedy, you can only plan so much.”
Ten months after the events of Nov. 17, stricken Illinois communities are returning to normal. As healing continues, recovery costs are counted and lessons learned are shared. The new school year has begun in the impacted communities.
“Tornado Aid Likely Won’t Cover Recovery Costs,” WICS-TV Newschannel 20, Springfield, archives from April, 2014
“What You Should Know about Tornadoes,” the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, http://www.nctsn.org/
“Resources for School Personnel,” the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, http://www.nctsn.org/
“14 Severe Weather Survival Tips: Vulnerability assessments, using safe rooms, following the two-wall rule and planning for students with special needs are just some of the steps your campus must take to prepare for a tornado,” by Steve Slattery, http://www.campussafetymagazine.com