My guess is the Class of 2015 at South Central Calhoun High School in Lake City, Iowa, will be known as “the tornado class”. On Sunday evening May 10th around 7:30, an F-1 tornado dropped out of the sky on the far west end of Lake City, tore the roof right off the high school, and then carved a path of destruction across several residential blocks in the western Iowa community.
My good friend and fellow tuba player Tom Plummer is the band director at the high school, and he lives about 6 blocks from the school. In the picture at the top of this post, taken by the Iowa Department of Public Safety the morning after the twister, you can see the damage done to the school. On the left side of the photo, you can see an SUV hooked to a big white trailer between two of the buildings. The building to the right of the SUV and trailer is Tom’s new band room, which was built just a few years ago. The twister did no damage to that part of the school.
Above is another shot of some of the damage the twister did.
Tom and I have established a tradition. Each year in June, we pick a weekend that works, and I spend 3 or 4 days as a guest in Tom’s home. We drink a little beer, watch a little baseball, and play a lot of polka music. Lake City is a small community of about 17-hundred folks, very much like my small hometown of Hortonville, Wisconsin – which was also hit by a tornado a year ago. So I’ve got a special affinity for Lake City.
And I’ve got a special affinity for Iowans. My two kids (step-children, if you’re one of those people to whom biology matters) were born in Burlington, Iowa in the mid-80’s. I’ve always thought their Hawkeye heritage helped give them a pragmatic approach to life: sensible, down-to-earth, the harder I work, the luckier I get -you get the idea.
I’ve written before about my June weekends at Tom’s house in Lake City. Last year, I based the entire essay on the wonderful, friendly, helpful Iowans I encountered on my journey from Madison to Lake City. It’s here if you want to read it when you have time.
As usual, I digress.
Back to the Lake City tornado, and how those Iowans dealt with it. Because of my many years in southern California and many more in Wisconsin, I’ve been through earthquakes (4 of them) and tornadoes (about 10, I think). Both are very powerful forces of nature, and both will terrify you if you’re close to either.
Shortly after the tornado hit Lake City Sunday evening, Tom posted on Facebook that he was OK, and he put up some pictures of the wreckage in his neighborhood. I didn’t want to call him or text him; I figured he’d be plenty busy dealing with concerned family, and with his professional responsibilities as a teacher at the high school the tornado had just hit.
The high school is the heart of a small community. At one point or another, just about everybody is directly involved in something at the high school: a graduation, a concert or play; a sporting event; perhaps a civic meeting. The high school’s identity is the town’s identity, because it’s a reflection of the people who live there, pay their taxes there, and send their kids there.
When a small-town high school is rendered unusable by a natural disaster, the entire community is affected. Within a couple days of the disaster, these Iowans – who came together immediately to deal with the pressing problem of having no high school – had the power back on, much of the community cleaned up, and had made difficult decisions about the immediately pressing issues of where to hold classes, how to deal with the disruption of the school calendar right at the end of the school year, and a million other details.
If you have time, the local newspaper wrote a great article about this coming-together and decision-making. The article is linked here.
What these folks did, without arguing about who was in charge, who had jurisdiction, who had authority to do what, was really remarkable: everybody just pitched in and said “how can I help?” If you read the newspaper article, you’ll learn that Lake City’s churches and civic organizations immediately stepped up to volunteer spaces to serve as temporary classrooms.
The Iowa Corn Growers Association volunteered to bring in lunches for the school kids. The school board met, and without a long, drawn-out debate, made decisions about how to deal with the problems dealt them, when to set graduation, where to have it, and what would happen between now and then.
They dealt with bids for the contractor who’d put the new roof on, and decided while they were at it how to most efficiently coordinate the district’s plans for improving wi-fi and air conditioning in the school. They said they might have to put off a parking lot repaving project for a year or so because of the need to deal with the situation the tornado created.
And they did it all in about 72 hours. In Madison, it probably would have taken four months, three new committees, and thousands of man-hours of debate, arguing, and ox-goring to make half as many decisions.
The whole nation could learn a good lesson from observing how these small-town Iowans faced and dealt with their problems; how so many people and institutions stepped up immediately with that “how can we help” attitude.
Good job, Lake City, in showing the rest of the world how it’s done. I can’t wait to visit again, in a few weeks, and see how you’re coming along.