Discuss as:

After tornado's harsh lesson, Joplin's child survivors return to school

When the tornado hit Joplin, Mo., it almost seemed to have targeted education, destroying 10 of the town’s 12 schools. 

As the storm roared through May 22, the first thing Irving Elementary teacher Shelly Tater thought about was her students.  “I drove down there and it looked like a war zone.  People (were) running everywhere, screaming.  You couldn’t even drive because there were things all over the road.” Tater made her way to the school to find it demolished by the storm.  She then looked toward the surrounding neighborhood.  “It looked like a landfill,” she says, “You couldn’t even tell where the houses had been.  I was just worried about the kids."

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Gathered in a portable schoolroom, Irving Elementary third grade teacher Patricia Bell reads "First Day Jitters" to her third grade class on the first day of school in Joplin, Mo., Wednesday, Aug. 17. The original school, along with ninety percent of the student's homes, were destroyed in the May 22 tornado.

Ninety percent of the students’ homes were destroyed or damaged so badly that they weren’t fit to live in.  With tears welling up in her eyes, Tater says, “I just had to get in the mindset of … I probably am going to have some kids that aren’t going to be with us this year, and that’s hard.” 

Today, almost three months later, 100 percent of the students are OK, and most of them are starting their school year at a new, albeit temporary, school three miles northeast from their old school. Six of the classrooms are in trailers, and the rest are in the old Washington Educational building. It was an elementary school years ago but sat abandoned last year.

On their first day in their new, but temporary school, Irving Elementary third graders talk about the tornado that destroyed their school and many of their homes in Joplin, Missouri.

“They pulled in a trailer for the kitchen where the lunch ladies make lunches and haul them over to the cafeteria on carts,” says Tater.  “The makeshift playground isn’t very big compared to what they had at Irving, it’s about one fourth as big.  There’s sod laid so the kids can have a soccer field and play ball.“

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

A custodial worker walks into the new, temporary classrooms at Irving Elementary School (Washington Campus) after the end of the first day of school.

Through the efforts of everybody in the school district, Joplin made sure that the kids had desks, school supplies, and in many cases new shoes and clothes.  “Everybody just reached out to everybody.  People from other buildings that weren’t affected were coming together and helping people look through rubbage,” Tater says, “And then donations, volunteers.” Working nonstop, the school board did what had to be done to make it happen.  They spent late nights, even sleeping at the school.

The kids looked happy to be back in school again. “Kids are resilient, they bounce back pretty quickly,” Tater says, “I think they’re ready to move on, they’re ready to have that normalcy, they’re ready to have that structure, the discipline.  They’re looking forward to having their routine again, even if they’re living something different. Coming to school, that’s a normal thing for them.”

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Trying to give her students a sense of security, Irving Elementary School third grade teacher Shelly Tater gives her students a tour of one of four concrete tornado shelters parked outside their temporary school.


This and other new schools in Joplin have a feature the old ones didn’t: tornado shelters. The huge concrete bunkers hold 34 people each. The older schools used traditional tornado drills: Kids were taught to sit in the hallway with their hands over their heads. “The kids were curious about the shelters, so we went out there, opened one, went inside.  They were excited that there was a Porta-Potty in there. Just to reassure them, we do have a safe place to go, so don’t worry about it if something like that were to happen again. We’re going to be there to take care of you and protect you.”

Roger Nomer / The Joplin Globe via AP

This May 24, 2011 photo shows the Irving Elementary School, constructed in 1927, after being damaged by the May 22 tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo.


More from msnbc.com's reporting trip to Joplin:

Photoblog: Tornado 'helps' couple downsize

Photoblog: After tornado's harsh lesson, Joplin's child survivors return to school

Story: Joplin students head back to a new high-tech high school, in the mall

Slideshow: Joplin, before and after tornado cleanup