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A destroyed El Reno school, but a renewed spirit

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
June 3, 2013
 

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Today marks 15 days since tornadoes broke out throughout Oklahoma. Whether in Shawnee, Broken Arrow, or in the hardest hit area – Moore – they’ve wiped out thousands of buildings, taken at least 35 lives, and altered many, many more. The latest area  – hit by an EF 3 on Friday night – includes El Reno.  On Sunday, Governor Fallin and local leaders toured the area…

Walking into El Reno’s Canadian Valley Technology Center requires navigating doors knocked off their tracks by the tornado, glass scattered across the floor, and whatever danger you can’t see. It’s a mess. It’s hard to imagine how less than 48 hours ago, students opened the black framed doors to take on another day of classes.

“It’s a very surreal, almost nightmarish type of deal, but the problem is it’s not a nightmare. You’re really living this, and you’re having to react to it.”

As Superintendent of the Technology Center system in the county, Greg Winters has been around for more than 30 years. He knows some of the board members who approved the designs for the building in the mid 60’s. And that makes the destruction personal.

“When I drove in the other night and saw the initial destruction, it was pretty emotional to be real honest about it. This building has been here since 1968.”

The deadly storm didn’t take any lives at the technology center, and Winters thanks quick thinking for that. Instead of sheltering in a hallway, the dozen or so students tried to get underground, and they ended up in a stairway just past the main entrance.

“We got the students, they were in another classroom down the hallway, all adult students, Friday evening, got them herded in here. They rode the storm out, got real black, big boom. 15 minutes they walk out, not a scratch on them.”

The cinder block hallway they usually would crowd into was wiped out by the 150 mile per hour winds.

At least 8 of those killed by the storms were in their cars when they hit. That includes 3 storm chasers, who dedicated themselves to trying to understand the meteorological conditions that lead to tornadoes. Already, there’s been discussion of why so many were on the roads, and why one TV meteorologist pleaded with viewers to try to outrun the storm if they couldn’t get underground. Here’s Governor Fallin:

“It was a very challenging time, especially having I-40 just a short distance from us, and having so much traffic on a major interstate during a critical time of the day, when these storms crept up so very quickly and built so very quickly.”

Albert Ashwood, Director of the state’s Emergency Management Department, says police are limited in what they can do once people actually get on the road.

“It’s not as simple as saying well we’ll exit everyone at this exit until the storm passes, we might be putting them in harm’s way. It’s a fluid situation.”

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Despite the confusion and finger pointing, the focus was on the cleanup. Back at Canadian Valley Technology Center in El Reno, the birds chirp, the sun shines, and Superintendent Greg Winters turns to Governor Fallin at the podium:

“My promise to you, Governor and the citizens of our district, we’re going to have school in August. It’s going to be a little different, it’s going to be a little cramped, but we’re going to have school.”

Governor Fallin says she will ask FEMA to approve 8 additional counties as federal disasters because of tornado damage and flooding. Inspection teams will be out in multiple areas of the state, as they work to document the damage.

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