The easy smile that lights up C.J. Huff’s face belies the stress, long hours and even tears of the past 10 months.
Huff, superintendent since 2008, is leading the Joplin (Mo.) School District back from a tragedy matched only by the courage and hard work of the community that has rallied around it.
May 22, 2011, began early for Huff. It was graduation day and Huff arrived at his office around 6:30 a.m. to work on the speech he would give that afternoon at graduation.
“Graduation is a great day of celebration,” Huff said, “It is one of my favorite days of the year.”
That day of celebration turned quickly into one of horror, however. A half hour after the last diploma was handed out, one of the most powerful tornados in recorded history carved a slice through Joplin, killing 160 and doing billions of dollars of damage to homes, businesses and public works.
Although it would take days to assess the total damage, the Joplin schools were particularly hard hit.
“From a square footage standpoint, half our district had been destroyed,” Huff said. “We had 40 percent of our kids who were displaced, who didn’t have a school to go to. We identified more than 3,000 kids who lived in the path of that storm.”
In the first hours after the storm, the biggest problem was getting information.
“Communication was very limited,” Huff said. “Text messaging was the best method of communication. We didn’t have phone service, but we could text message to a degree, but that was spotty. You’d send a text message and maybe 10 minutes before it was sent and maybe a half hour later you’d get a response back. It would just come in batches. I’d get 10 or 12 text messages all at once.”
Huff said his greatest anxiety came from not knowing what had happened to the district’s 7,700 students. Eventually he would learn that seven students and one staff member perished in the storm.
“We had 7,700 kids who were essentially missing,” Huff said. “Not knowing where they were and knowing that the outcome was probably not good in a lot of cases, was heart wrenching.”
Because one of the buildings lost was the district administration building, the district set up a command center at North Middle School. From there the administrative team worked around the clock gathering information about students and staff and damage to buildings.
“It was awful. I can’t even put it into words. It was a very emotional time,” Huff said. “You run on adrenaline and fear. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. Everybody was just working; day, night, it didn’t matter.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, May 24, Huff lay down on a cot in the North Middle School nurse’s office, but sleep eluded him.
“I had a good cry. I’m not going to lie about that,” Huff said. “I thought about what to do. I thought about the responsibility and finding our place as a school district in this whole disaster.”
It was then that Huff decided that the Joplin schools would start on time on August 17.
“People have asked me, ‘What made you think you could do that? That was crazy,’” Huff said, “but I never doubted we could do it.”
Huff said he was confident because of the people around him.
“I looked at my leadership team. They’re just workhorses and they have a lot of really good skill sets,” Huff said. “I’ve got a great relationship with my leadership team. I’d walk through fire for them and they’d walk through fire for me.”
He also knew some things about construction.
“We had just built three middle schools and had good relationships with local architects and contractors. So I felt I could count on them and knew what they were capable of,” Huff said.
Although he knew the community would rally around the school district, the level of that support was both surprising and gratifying, Huff said.
“We had done a lot of work with community building prior to the storm with our Bright Futures initiative and our graduation efforts and engaging our community,” Huff said. “We had such strong relationships with the businesses, faith-based organizations and human service agencies in the community, that when we made the decision to start school on time, the people we had been working with were the first ones to come knocking on our door to say, ‘How can we help?’”
But putting kids back into classrooms when half the schools, including Joplin High School, had been either destroyed or severely damaged was a Rubic’s Cube on a gigantic scale. Huff’s administrative team dove into the work immediately. They met every day, beginning each meeting with a celebration.
“Sometimes we didn’t have a lot to celebrate and we’d celebrate the fact that at that given time, maybe it was 63 days until the kids came back to school,” Huff said.
To help keep the focus on opening day, Huff borrowed a countdown clock that the high school football coach used to mark the approach of the first football game. Instead of football, however, the clock was set on August 17.
“We hung that up in the front entry of north middle school and everybody got to see that as they walked in,” Huff said. “That included the architects and the contractors and everybody else. It became a symbol that reminded us we were under the gun. It was a reminder that we needed to do the right things for the right reasons and we didn’t have time for bickering.”
The solutions the district found were creative. For example, an empty anchor retail space at the NorthPark Mall was remodeled to accommodate 11th and 12th graders. In an industrial park on the east side of town, a spec building with no interior walls or even a floor was snatched up to become a middle school. The State of Missouri, which had just announced the closing of the Missouri Department of Transportation Office in Joplin, offered the district that building for its administrative offices. At Cecil Floyd Elementary School, the roof was replaced and interior spaces rebuilt.
The work was a ballet that took place in a half dozen locations across the city over the summer, rushing headlong toward the August 17 finale. That it all came together at once was a minor miracle.
“For our community, I think the first big celebration after the tornado was the opening of school on time on the 17th. That was a huge event,” Huff said. “That was the greatest day of my professional career.”
As special as that day was for Huff and his team, it was even more important to the students and their families, Huff said.
“Seeing those kids back in school was amazing. Some of these families have been through so much. It was important to get back to the security and stability of school,” Huff said.
Opening school on time was not a finale, however. It was just the first step on the road to recovery, Huff said. The next step in the process will be passing a bond issue so new schools can replace the temporary ones.
For Huff, that means another August deadline, but this one is a little farther out on the horizon.
“If we get through this bond issue in April, August 2014 is our finish line.”