De Soto, Mo., is a quiet little town of 6,000 people located about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis. Nestled in the foothills of east-central Missouri, it sits in an area prime for the frequent tornados that roar through the Midwest every year. On the night of May 6, 2003, one of those tornados made a most unpleasant direct hit on De Soto.

When the storm abated, the town’s junior high school gym had been totally demolished, a second gym at the adjoining high school was seriously damaged and the roof of another school was blown off. The State of Missouri subsequently declared De Soto a disaster area.

The good news from all of this destruction was that no one was killed or injured. That said, the task of rebuilding De Soto’s schools was enormous. Before any construction work could begin, however, it was important to evaluate the structures that had been left standing at the schools.

Since I had been part of the design team on numerous projects in the last decade in De Soto, I traveled to the town the day after the tornado and examined the affected buildings. Based upon my analysis of weakened beams that I considered to be dangerous, a decision was made to close the high school gym.

Although it was necessary to close down the second gym, only through the considerably heroic efforts of many people, including firefighters, police officers, insurance representatives and the hard-working residents of De Soto, was further damage minimized. For example, a fast-thinking school coach shepherded his athletes during the tornado into a walkway between the two gyms, where the supporting structure withstood the fury of the storm.

The indomitable spirit of the people, in fact, quickly turned this disaster into an opportunity for growth and development. For years, the 73-school district had made do with a number of buildings that had been built nearly a half-century ago, with some additional structures added in the early 1970s. The district had failed several times in the last decade, including three times in 2000 and 2001, to get a bond issue passed by local voters that would enable it to refurbish district facilities.

In the past 10 years, St. Louis-based architectural firm Kromm, Rikimaru & Johansen (KRJ) had designed an addition at one of the elementary schools and also planned to expand projects that were voted down.

KRJ provided the planning services needed at four De Soto School District campuses, including pre-emptive maintenance work, rejuvenation of aging buildings and upgrades that would lead to measurable energy savings.

Local contractor/developer Brockmiller Construction Company hired KRJ as a subcontractor to provide design services on upgrades to the schools’ foundations, exterior walls, exterior windows, interior and exterior doors, interior partitions and roof-ceiling systems.

After the clean-up from the tornado began, however, district board directors, administrators and patrons decided to“build back better,” in the words of Terry Noble, superintendent of schools. Noble asked KRJ to develop preliminary plans that would involve a flip-flop of the facilities.

“We looked at the feasibility of moving the junior high school to the east side of the campus, with the junior high inheriting the existing high school gym,” says Noble.“We then considered the opportunity to remodel and expand the high school gym in the old junior high location.”

Incredibly enough, the gym that had been demolished by the tornado had been the one structure that for years had been standing in the way of any planned expansion. It was a one-in-a-million occurrence that the tornado destroyed that particular building. Or was it divine providence?

Because of the tornado, the Missouri Legislature passed a special waiver for the De Soto district, allowing the district to place a bond issue on the August 2003 ballot that required a four-sevenths voter approval, rather than the customary two-thirds approval for August issues. This proved to be a critical point, because voters subsequently passed a $7.6-million bond issue with about 66 percent approval, which would have been just short of the usual two-thirds majority. Combined with a $1.25-million insurance settlement for the destroyed gymnasium, the district embarked upon an $8.85-million project.

Ground was broken in March 2004 on the ambitious design. In order to reach the goal of having the new facilities functioning by the start of the 2005 school year, the planning process was accelerated a full 100 percent.

“The community has seen the tornado as a blessing in disguise,” says Noble. “And the expansion of facilities isn’t going to be limited exclusively to the high school and junior high school. We’re going to add kindergarten classrooms and a new cafeteria at one of our elementary schools, as well as additional classroom kindergarten space at another elementary school in the district.”

The new gymnasium, which should be operational by September 2005, is being built for the entire De Soto community as well as the high school students. The public will have access to a track that will encompass the gym. In addition to providing a venue for the high school’s cross-country and track teams, the track will also serve as a walking area for community residents seeking an outlet for exercise.

Additionally, the design includes renovation of the rest of the high school, adding new classrooms, new lockers and a science center. The new elements are encompassed in a two-story building, with construction focused on three levels. The building sits atop a hilly area, allowing for a cascading effect down the slope of the hill.

The updated design also incorporates the area’s cultural heritage in various design elements, a consistent factor in the history of KRJ projects. Our own professional philosophy is that new structures should embody the spirit and philosophy of a community. In our 10-year relationship with the De Soto community, we’ve acquired considerable knowledge about the city and its surrounding environment.

The brick and metal work in our design for the new gymnasium reflects the 19th century architectural values of De Soto and its Mississippi Valley heritage. Using classical proportion and symmetry combined with inspiration from local historical styles creates a new type of ornamentation that nonetheless respects the historical context of the community. Thus, the school relates to the area’s heritage and reinforces its identity.

Even in the age of a global economy, it’s important to maintain the distinctive personality of a region and a community. De Soto’s new facilities will reflect that thought. The updated school structures will nearly border the town’s community center and will complement existing architectural themes.

Further tying in with the community, the new school library, as well as the school’s new distance learning center, will be open and available to De Soto residents even when school isn’t in session. It is in this manner that the school will truly become an educational facility for the community.

Beyond the form and function of the facilities and the revitalized academic institutions, the design of the new gymnasium and other buildings is intended to provide energy savings and increased safety within the structures.

The fury of Mother Nature, as exemplified by the fast and furious damage of a tornado, can strike at any time. The resiliency of a community to rebound from a natural disaster, though, can lead to even better conditions and facilities for its residents.

It is exciting to be an architect who can help a community rebuild itself after a disaster. In the case of De Soto 73 School District, the community’s most valuable natural resource — its children — are going to benefit in a big way from the Great Tornado of 2003.