by Brian Hale, Nebraska Association of School Board, Director of Communications
Over the last 50+ years of my life, this country has endured many unthinkable disasters. Some are man-made, and some emerge as a natural disaster.
I’ve watched the face of my television as it described for me the stark horrors that an assassination attempt, rioting, or terrorist attacks can unleash on a community of people.
I’ve often grimaced watching Mother Nature demonstrate why we humans do not fully control our own destiny. I attended Westgate Elementary School in Omaha several years prior to its destruction from a 1975 tornado. There’s regular evidence to demonstrate how the forces of weather, geology, and solar radiation can render the best of our human engineering skills to folly.
Seeing it up close, as I had the opportunity to do in Oklahoma City last week, gave me a chance to witness the human condition whittled to its core. An F5 tornado tore through the suburb of Moore on May 20, less than an hour before school was going to be dismissed for the day. Veterans of tornado country will tell you that most tornadoes hit later in the afternoon or in the evening. For schools, that means fewer children at risk. But everyone also acknowledges Mother Nature doesn’t always play by the rules .
Of course, Moore, Oklahoma is no stranger to tornadic activity. Counting this incident, there have been three touch downs in Moore over the past 15 years. So schools have tornado drills, and they make plans for such events. Those plans, and the heroic efforts of many which couldn’t be practiced, saved many lives on May 20.
Still, seven children and one staff member died in the tornado. What isn’t told is that 1,200 children and more than 100 staff members survived in two schools that were literally
reduced to rubble. Indeed the staff member who died had a planning period at the end of the day, and had slipped over to the nearby 7-11. She and three other people died in the cooler of the convenience store when the tornado flattened it.
Plaza Towers Elementary Principal Amy Simpson took shelter in the ladies restroom. When the storm had passed, she climbed over the rubble, around a car that had been blown in from the parking lot, and began helping students and staff. She saw many adults running to the school building from across the street to help rescue survivors. Several stories emerged of teachers who had thrown themselves on top of their students, to protect the kids from falling and flying debris.
You find your character in situations such as these, and these teachers have proven to be of the highest order.
Feeling moved by the images coming from Oklahoma, NASB Executive Director John Spatz wondered aloud if there was anything we could do for those people. “If only we could drive some supplies down to them,” he said.
To which I replied, “I’ll drive.”
And a plan was born. The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) provided us with a list of items that were in need. Our partner organizations, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the Nebraska Rural and Community Schools Association joined our staff in putting together “care” packages. Spatz went on the Lincoln radio and television stations to explain our plan, and dozens and dozens of Lincolnites added to the relief effort. Rent- a-Van agreed to rent us an empty 15-passenger van for free. By the end of the one-day campaign, we had stuffed the van so full, there was no room for a co-pilot on the mission.
As I drove into the north side of Oklahoma City, there
was really little sign of trouble. Standing water in the highway medians was the only indication of the storm that had been there. It was a smooth drive to the OSSBA offices, which are located near the Capitol.
I delivered a tightly packed van full of bottled water, diapers and baby formula, toiletries, toothbrushes from the University of Nebraska Dental College, shovels, gloves, brooms, trash bags, pet food, and canned goods. OSSBA is linking with local service agencies to get all of the goods to where they are needed.
After delivering the goods, I joined up with a group of school public relations professionals to provide support to Moore Public Schools in the crush of media that immediately followed the storms into town. NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, The Weather Channel, ABC, Good Morning America, The Today Show, and a vast array of local and regional news outlets rounded up their satellite news trucks and headed for the scene.
How come there aren’t “safe rooms” in every school? Should there have been more protection for students and staff? Suddenly a rumor started that a teacher was to be fired because they prayed openly with students just prior to the impending strike. Since the administration building was also struck (and the districts servers destroyed in the process), would the district be able to make pay day for staff members three days later? And then, of course, Saturday was graduation day, and Sunday President Obama decided to visit the community.
Moore’s Superintendent Susie Pierce did an amazing job in the wake of the disaster. Its obvious she won’t be coasting into her retirement at the end of June. All of the above issues, plus setting up a new administrative headquarters in the high school, and arranging meetings with the insurance adjusters left less time to craft messages and organize the media. That’s where I joined in with my school public relations colleagues from throughout the area.
Jim Dunn, APR, who spent many years working in school public relations in Liberty, MO schools, used the experience he gained in Joplin, MO tornado last year to organize the Communications Command Team. Many
Oklahoma school public relations professionals joined in to give the effort legs. I joined them Thursday and Friday, and a cadre of PR people came up from Texas to help on Saturday and Sunday. School PR Veteran Nora Carr, APR, flew in from North Carolina.
Daily briefings, along with media and internet monitoring, were necessary to nip the rumors that a loose headline creates. Bullet points for the superintendent, press conference logistics, media requests, and providing a contribution avenue for donors was all part of the work undertaken by the collection of PR folks. It was inspiring.
But nowhere near as inspiring as watching people join together in the recovery effort. NASB helped a group of Nebraskans do more than just shake their heads at another natural disaster, we provided the bridge that allowed citizens, schools and organizations to send needed supplies directly to people in need, many of whom we will never meet.
On behalf of their fellow Oklahomans, OSSBA expressed their deepest gratitude to everyone involved in making this mission happen. But it didn’t seem right for me to wallow in the accolades when so many helped. This is how people are supposed to take care of each other. There is so much we cannot do for the people who are trying to put their lives back together. But when we can, we should help our fellow humans. I’m proud to say I was a part of an effort do that.
Having seen the compassion on dozens of Nebraskans’ faces when they brought their contributions into our office, I know they would see it the same way. It is how we have survived out here in the prairie. Take care of your neighbors in need. Because, but for the grace of God go any of us.