Garthia Elena Burnett: Rebuilding Caledonia school

May 22, 2009

Garthia Elena Burnett -

 

I can remember riding in the back of a pickup to get to campus. 

 

From Main Street, the wreckage already could be seen. 

 

Rubble. Twisted metal. Broken glass. 

 

Walking near what used to be the school marquee, the devastation was more unnerving. 

 

The band hall was a pile of rubble, as was the formerly adjoined middle school gym and the vo-tech buildings. 

 

Cars were crushed, some laying on top of each other. 

 

It was the day after the Jan. 10, 2008, F3 tornado hit Caledonia. 

 

I had been back to campus maybe twice since I graduated, once was to attend my brother, Glen''s, graduation from Caledonia High in 2006. 

 

Less than two years later, the campus was almost unrecognizable. 

 

Today, more changes envelop the school, as crews work to erect $2 million worth of structures -- the new middle school gym (actually located by the middle school rather than the high school) and high school art, band, building trades and allied health classrooms.  

 

As workers poured concrete Tuesday, the parking lot holds only ghosts of the ruin once contained there. It was cleared just days after the storm. 

 

An 18,350-square-foot building is being constructed in place of the band hall, art room and vo-tech facilities. A 14,320-square-foot gym also is in the works. 

 

By July, structurally, the campus will have fully recovered from the tornado. 

 

And school has long-since resumed business as usual. 

 

But for those who were on campus that fateful Thursday afternoon, the memories are as vivid today as they were more than a year and a half ago. 

 

"I just remember them taking us out of the biology room and moving us to another classroom," recalled Anne Murphy, a rising Caledonia High senior. She was a sophomore at the time. 

 

It was about an hour after the first warning when the school''s lights began to flicker, and they could hear debris hitting the building. 

 

Gas leaks in the science lab forced the teachers and students into the hallway. 

 

"We all had to hold our breath for a while, so we didn''t breathe in too much glass," Anne said. "I think someone passed out." 

 

Soon, the students were evacuated into the high school gym. 

 

"When they moved us into the gym, I noticed all the damage," she said. "Cars were flipped over; there was a bus on top of the vocational building." 

 

It was surreal for her at the time, but her mind also was elsewhere. 

 

"I didn''t know where my family was," said Anne. "I was thinking about my family a lot during all that. I didn''t know if they got hurt." 

 

They didn''t. While the storm left widespread damage, only minor injuries and no deaths were reported. 

 

Students were only out of school for a few days, returning to mobile classrooms and fenced-off debris. 

 

By the time I took a trip back to campus myself, the band hall -- where I''d led the band as drum major, rehearsed for countless games and played clarinet and French horn preparing for concerts -- was completely gone, swept away with the rest of the debris. 

 

The art room -- its walls once donned a calm puddle with a leaf floating in it, I''d painted my sophomore year -- saw the same fate, as did the remnants of the middle school gym. 

 

The athletic facilities were devastated. 

 

A fire had stricken the middle school there nearly 26 years ago, Sept. 20, 1983. 

 

Roger Hill, who has been principal at Caledonia Elementary School for more than three decades, recalled the exact date. 

 

As with the tornado, the school utilized trailers as classrooms; the elementary school gym also was used for classroom space. 

 

In August 1986, a new high school was completed, Hill remembered. The middle school students moved to the old high school. 

 

The fire now is not much more than a faded memory. 

 

The tornado, I imagine -- at least for the school -- eventually will get there. 

 

New students and teachers will come; the new buildings will be the only ones they know. 

 

And the tornado, in that aspect, will fade into time. 

 

Anne doesn''t think much about it anymore. 

 

"I was just thankful to be alive and glad no one got hurt," she said. 

 

And as daunting as the ordeal was at the time, even when she passes the ongoing construction at the school, the memories stay tucked away. 

 

 

 

Garthia Elena Burnett is news editor of The Dispatch. Contact her at gburnett@cdispatch.com.