Nature Teaches Lessons

Crisis or disaster planning is preparation for the unknown. If you ask disaster survivors, most will tell you what they experienced is almost unimaginable. At Norris Public Schools in Firth, NE, an F-4 tornado, with winds of more than 150 miles per hour, quickly demonstrated how vulnerable a school campus can be. One Saturday evening — 11 days after passing a bond referendum to fund a new middle school and one day after students were dismissed for the summer — a tornado two-and-one-half miles wide made its way through the school site.

In its 52-mile-long path of debris, the auditorium, gymnasium, and bus barn were gone. Much of the roofing was either blown off or ruined, leaving water damage from rain and hail, with additional damage where school sprinklers were activated. The day after the last day of classes, buildings were virtually unoccupied, except for one middle school math teacher grading papers.

The morning after the storm, Norris Superintendent Roy Baker met with school board members at his kitchen table. Communication and trust in leadership is a critical component to successful crisis management. As Superintendent Baker puts it,“You can’t have one three-month-long continuous board meeting. There are big decisions to make, every day. The board agreed to give me authority to sign contracts and to make decisions. In turn, I kept everyone informed. Initially, I would communicate every night from my computer at home, since the school was without electricity. We were able to be light on our feet and get the necessary things done to move forward.”

The district worked with legal counsel and was able to get an emergency certificate signed that authorized waiving normal bidding timelines and requirements, in the interest of getting the school facilities restored as soon as possible. Everything needed to fall into place in order for students to return to school by fall, just three months following the tornado.

DLR Group was also on-site the morning after the storm to assist with damage assessment. Hired as part of the middle school architectural and engineering design team, DLR Group worked with Sampson Construction and Olsson Associates to simultaneously complete the new school and address repair and restoration to the storm-damaged campus. The design team also worked with representatives from the insurance company and regulatory agencies to determine the structural safety of areas and develop a reconstruction plan.

The damage assessment spanned 268,000 sq. ft. of building footprint, with many sections of the roof membrane destroyed. The storm picked up entire rooftop mechanical units and threw them around. The rock used for sections of ballasted roofing became“missiles” — a term used for storm-thrown debris, according to DLR Group structural engineer, Trevor Larsen. Walking through the site after the tornado, it was evident that the interior hallways would be one of the most dangerous locations to seek shelter. While shielded from exterior windows, taller structures collapsed into the hallways that were not hardened.

Reconstruction of the building emphasizes the use of reinforced masonry construction. Storm shelter areas are designed and constructed with reinforced masonry and structural concrete roof construction. According to Larsen, storm shelter design criteria must include consideration for wind velocities of up to 250 miles per hour, designing for safety from wind-driven projectiles and providing hardened roof structures. Witnessing the damage caused by the Norris tornado validates the importance of designing adequate storm shelter areas for school buildings.

Clean up involved hundreds of volunteers sorting through debris over several weeks. Mold and mildew mitigation was a major concern. A moisture control contractor was on-site within days to help dry out the building. Temporary roofing was used to help make the areas watertight and prevent further damage. Salvage efforts involved 40,000 volumes of books, 5,000 linear feet of documents and the use of 50 trailers to house salvaged contents of the school. Items the district had to replace included seven damaged buses and six vans.

Norris district leaders had to determine two plans: a reconstruction plan for the damaged campus and the planning and design of a new middle school. Setting a target goal for reconstruction that focused on getting students to class was important. Decisions were made in order to get as much building completed as quickly as possible. In order to meet an aggressive target to start classes after Labor Day, school staff prepared to run a modified block schedule for at least the first semester and to use portable classrooms for middle school and high school classes. Plans called for sack lunches for the first few months of school until the kitchen was ready for service.

Concurrent with the reconstruction work, separate crews were working on outdoor facilities. It became important for the community to have the bleachers replaced and ready for a first home football game. “While we didn’t know for sure if we would be meet the timelines we set and had some contingency plans, having our first home football game in our stadium was the first time many Norris people were allowed back on parts of the campus, except for those who volunteered for clean-up. Everyone was amazed at how much work was done,” said Baker. The football stadium received new lights, scoreboard, goal posts, concession/restroom building, press box, fence, and ticket booth.

“Looking back it is almost inconceivable how it got done. Crews worked together to get as much done as we could, as soon as we could, all focused on getting students into classrooms. People still find it unbelievable and marvel at how fast the rebuild went,” said Baker. “There is no question that to have so many resources in one company helped us. After the tornado, there were so many different fronts that had to be dealt with, to have a firm like DLR Group with all those specialists was key. A little company could not have done that,” Baker said. Reconstruction took more than 20 months, at a cost just more than $35 million.

The new middle school is open and the campus is restored, now with updates to most of the district faculties. What was a disaster turned into an opportunity to make necessary code updates and add new paint, new lights, ceiling, and flooring in many areas. Students returned back to campus after Labor Day and there was shared spirit of cooperation and community pride that continues today as the real legacy of the May 2004 tornado.

Tom Penney, AIA, is senior principal, and Pat Phelan, LEED-AP, is a principal with DLR Group. They can be reached at