Tornado impact still felt by Henryville students

The elementary school in Henryville is rebuilt after last year's tornadoes.

All this week, we've been reporting on the recovery in southern Indiana towns, one year after the deadly tornado outbreak killed 14 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings.

One of the biggest rebuilding projects involved the Henryville schools heavily damaged in the storm. The schools are back open, but the tornado impact is still being felt, nearly a year later.

Just like last year at this time, students and teachers at Henryville Elementary are dressed a little bit silly, celebrating Dr. Seuss.

But in 2012, that same celebration quickly turned serious, with a storm that nearly destroyed their school.

"Our first thought was, 'We're not going have a school again ever'," said Henryville Elementary Principal Dr. Glenn Riggs.

On Friday, March 2, after seeing storm warnings on the news, the school's staff made the life-saving decision to dismiss early. Minutes later, an EF4 tornado hit Henryville.

Henryville Junior/Senior High School Principal Troy Albert rode out the storm inside his school.

"We felt the shakes, the vibrations, the ceiling tiles starting to fall," Albert recalled. "We walked right through this wall, which wasn't there. It was all debris. We walked straight through, straight up and about right through the middle of the wall in the back to get out."

The twisters caused more than $50 million in damage to the school. The entire building was torn to shreds.

"It looked like a big Godzilla came and ate it," said Henryville fifth-grader Collin Gilles.

For children, it was a double blow. Many lost not only their school, but also their homes. Fifth-grader Jacob Dietrich is still living in temporary housing. His family's home was flattened by the tornado.

"The stairs were left to get up and after that it was just clean cut, you could say," Dietrich shared.

Gilles was with his parents and siblings in a closet when the storm hit. The entire family was picked up and thrown across the room. Everyone was badly injured, except Collin, who wore a bicycle helmet for protection.

"My dad broke, I think, 19 bones and dislocated his shoulder and punctured a lung and my mom broke her pelvis, fractured it. My brother broke two vertebrae in his back and my sister got a concussion," he said.

In the year that's followed, teachers became counselors as much as educators, helping children rebuild their lives. The remainder of the 2012 school year was spent in temporary schools, miles away from Henryville.

The school itself was reconstructed in just five months and donations poured in to get kids back in class.

"It's absolutely amazing to be back here after seeing everything that happened just over the summer, watching it come back and being here is awesome," said Henryville senior Kaitlyn Maloney. "This is our second home."

There are still challenges. Desks, books and tables are still on order, set to be delivered during Spring Break. Many years of teachers' lesson plans are gone for good.

"We've been piecing things together, literally, all year," Dr. Riggs said.

Plus, next week, students will begin ISTEP testing. They didn't take the tests last year, since the school was closed for storm cleanup, so this will be a new benchmark for kids.

There are also new procedures during storm drills. Because of what they saw in security video from inside the school when the tornado hit, school leaders made changes to storm safety plans. Drills now send students to safe rooms, bathrooms and closets, not hallways, as was standard before.

"We saw that the doors were what were the flying instruments and we just do not want any students in the hallways where there could be a chance of anything flying," Albert explained.

But perhaps the tornado's biggest impact was to reveal resiliency. Students and teachers say they're closer to each other than before the storm.

That sense of community is now displayed on the walls of the elementary school, with an art project that says "Our hearts are full of Hornet pride".

Albert says though tragic, the March 2 tornado strengthened Henryville students.

"That's a reflection on everybody that lives here and went through that. We're survivors and we're proud of it," he said.