By Cynthia McCabe
As a tornado ripped a path toward Rainsville, Ala., teacher Kelly Jackson huddled in a neighbor’s safe room with her son. The pressure built in her ears, worse than any airplane take-off, as they hunkered down for minutes that felt like hours.
They emerged to the sounds of neighbors yelling for help and widespread destruction. Down the road at Plainview High School, a K-12 school where Jackson teaches first grade and she herself graduated, the campus was in shambles. Entire buildings and rooms were completely gone. Roofs were blown off. The school was flooded. There was debris everywhere.
“When I saw it, I began to cry,” said Jackson. “I cried for all the memories I had there and for all the memories I knew my own child would miss out on. I cried for all the children whose lives had been touched by this tragedy. I didn’t know if my students were safe. I didn’t know if all my co-workers were safe.”
It was a scene that played out across the South during the last week of April, as tornadoes ripped through Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia, killing 354 people and causing an estimated $5.5 billion in damage. Just a few weeks earlier, a tornado and flooding had similarly devastated parts of Missouri.
For educators, the loss of life, property and a feeling of security was felt acutely both at home and within their school families.
As news came in in the hours and days that followed the Rainsville tornado, Jackson learned that two of Plainview’s students had died. One a 10th grader, the other a kindergartner. One teacher lost three family members. Many more lost their homes or were injured.
Plainview students and staff would later learn that they will have to finish out the year at another school and reconstruction is expected to take at least 18 months.
So devastating was the damage to the schools of the southern states that President Barack Obama toured one in recent weeks while assessing the scope of the storms’ destruction. Joined by first lady Michelle Obama, he toured Holt Elementary in Tuscaloosa, Ala., meeting with staff and administrators.
Back in Rainsville, Jackson and her colleagues were unable to return to school, with classes halted indefinitely. So they headed out into the community, helping at shelters and supply distribution centers in their own town and those surrounding it.
They delivered meals and clothes and helped clean up the damaged properties of their students and fellow teachers. They spent hours on the phone trying to find students and families. (Do you know an educator who has participated in this work in the wake of a natural disaster? Nominate them at NEA’s ClassroomSuperheroes.com.)
At the same time, the Alabama Education Association‘s leadership and staff immediately began assisting the 16 school systems affected by the disaster. The association lobbied and helped pass a bill in the state legislature giving school systems relief from the days missed due to the storms. They’ve offered money and food to help affected members with their needs.
At the local level, Sheila Cornelison, an association representative known as a UniServ director, has checked in every day with assistance, Jackson said. As they prepared to head to school for the first time yesterday, Cornelison and her colleagues were bringing snacks for the school community.
“Whatever we need to do we will do,” said Alabama Education Association President Anita Gibson. Bitter legislative battles will be put on hold temporarily to ensure that students’ and members’ day-to-day needs are being met.
“That’s all taken a backseat to the importance of human life,” Gibson said. “Our goal now is how do we get Alabama taken care of?”
There are several ways that you can help your colleagues in the hardest-hit areas:
• The Alabama Education Association Foundation is collecting funds for educators affected by the storms. Checks can be sent to the foundation at P.O. Box 4177, Montgomery, AL 36103.
• In Georgia, the Georgia Association of Educators is raising money to help rebuild schools, through its foundation. Checks can be sent to the Georgia Association of Educators Foundation, c/o Tyra Holt, 100 Crescent Centre Parkway, Suite 500, Tucker, GA 30084.
• In Missouri, the Missouri National Education Association is collecting money for victims of the Good Friday tornado and flooding through its Humanitarian Outreach Project for Education. Checks may be made to the MNEA Charitable Fund and sent to MNEA, 1810 East Elm, Jefferson City, MO 65101-4174.
Nationally, NEA’s Health Information Network sent $10,000 from its Disaster Relief Fund to Alabama, the hardest-hit state, said Director Jerald Newberry. All states affected are also getting support from the Health Information Network, in the form of crisis guides and training materials for educators and support staff who will aid in mental recovery efforts of educators and students.
That recovery will take time though, says Jackson.
“We are a strong community that the school is the center of,” she said. “My heart aches over the loss of life and the loss of things, but I feel so blessed to be part of such a wonderful school and community.”
Main Photo: Damage to Holt Elementary School in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Rogelio V. Solis/AP