While many are not sure what would have happened had the tornado been during school, new tornado safety procedures prove that students and faculty could very well have been safe.
“We used to have students stand in hallways or bathrooms and use books or desks to protect themselves, but since the Joplin tornado we have seen that hallways aren’t always the best choice when there’s no storm shelter,” said Dan Decker, superintendent of Neosho Schools.
When Goodman Elementary School Principal Samantha Hamilton was hired, one of the first things she did was look at the tornado procedure and try to find a better solution, according to Decker.
“She changed the procedure to have students go into specific interior rooms instead of having the students in bathrooms or hallways,” said Decker.
After the tornado hit Goodman Tuesday night, April 4, Hamilton returned to the school the next day to see if the rooms she had chosen for the students to seek shelter in were still standing.
“Each place that Mrs. Hamilton had chosen was solid and intact, so we can assume that if this tornado were to take place during school, the students would have had a safe place to go,” said Decker.
Nonetheless, the school is a total loss. Out of all the classrooms, only four were not directly destroyed. Several of the teachers were able to salvage materials, desks, and non-cloth furniture and take them to the temporarily classrooms set up for Goodman students throughout the district.
“Things that were not able to be salvaged were mostly books, all student files, and anything cloth,” said Decker.
It was an EF-2 tornado that hit on April 4 at 6:48 p.m., destroying the school, businesses, and damaging several houses. Even though Goodman is in McDonald County, the elementary school there is part of the Neosho School District.
There was one employee in the building at the time of the tornado, Lyndell Ulmer or “Lucky” as many call him. Lucky was able to take shelter in the faculty restroom by the main office and was fine. His Ford truck, on the other hand, is a different story. Parts of the school building’s east wall and roof fell on top of the truck, and a large limb went through the windshield.
Neosho students were already set to be out of school on Friday, April 7, due to the citywide garage sale, but school officials went ahead and cancelled classes for Wednesday and Thursday, April 5-6, so they could concentrate on tornado recovery efforts and getting everything in place for Goodman students to return to school on Monday, April 10.
“The school district had no plan set in place for something of this capacity, but when something like this happens it changes everything and our main priority is to take care of our students and faculty,” said Decker.
The biggest obstacle after the tornado was finding a place to send all Goodman students for the remainder of the school year.
The school district’s board, central office administration, as well as Goodman school officials sat down as a group and tried to figure out what they were going to do.
“The biggest concern for Mrs. Hamilton was wanting to keep the kids together, so we began looking at space in the district to see what options we had. After deciding that, everything else just fell into place,” said Decker.
The fourth grade was relocated to the Carver Elementary FEMA shelter, South Elementary took all kindergarten classes, and first through third grade was moved to the wrestling facility next to central office.
“It has been amazing to see those teachers come together and team teach with the conditions that they are in,” said Decker.
As far as lunches go, the Goodman lunch faculty have been divided up to help out in different buildings, and the high school prepares the lunch to be delivered to central office for the first- through third-graders.
“We brought warmers, tables, trays, and all the equipment needed to serve lunch and we also got picnic tables donated from Twin Oaks for the kids to eat at when it is nice outside,” said Decker.
When the board room is not in use it is turned into a lunchroom for the Goodman kids, and some even eat in their classroom.
“The other elementary schools have done a great job at helping the Goodman teachers prepare and settle into their temporary home,” said Decker.
Goodman Elementary did not have a safe room at the time of the tornado, but there will be a safe room when the new elementary school is built.
“There are still several of our schools that do not have safe rooms and we have applied for grants with FEMA to build them when funds become available,” said Decker.
The current safe rooms at the schools automatically unlock when a siren goes off and, according to Tim Crawley, assistant superintendent of business and finance for Neosho Schools, local residents did seek shelter at each site. There was also a track and field meet going on at the high school and students and fans were shuffled into the safe room.
“We had calls from people complimenting us on how we handled the situation and the amount of space we had to fit everyone,” said Decker.
As of right now, the district is in the early stages of planning on how to build a new elementary in Goodman.
“We are looking at 18 months, at least, at being able to have a new school for the Goodman kids. We have to go through insurance and then start looking at plans,” said Decker.
The plan for the next school year will have the Goodman students moved to the seventh grade wing at the middle school after the seventh and eighth grade students move to the new junior high school.
“Everyone in the community and district has been amazing in helping us out in every way possible,” said Decker.
The school district has had several donations by people and other school districts to make sure they had everything needed for Goodman students to finish the school year.
Private funds can be donated by individuals by the Neosho Charitable Foundation.
“I don’t know any one person that has really gone above and beyond. Everyone has really stepped up to the plate and willing to help with any need,” said Decker.
By Mattie Link