SPRINGDALE, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — People are still picking up the pieces, six months after a tornado tore through the city. That includes those at George Elementary School.
On Monday, the sun was shining and it was a perfect day for 1st-grade gym class outside.
“Luckily the weather gods have blessed me and it’s been cool all week,” said Jan Andre Williams, the P.E. teacher at George Elementary.
However, the weather gods threw Springdale a curve ball six months ago this week, when an EF3 tornado hit in the early morning hours of March 30. It went right through the George Elementary campus.
“I was contacted by a co-worker who lives close by at like 4:45 in the morning,” said George Elementary Principal Justin Swope. “She texted me and said hey, I’m at the gym and it was blown away.”
“I was getting these phone calls at 5:30 in the morning saying, Coach, your gym is gone and I’m like what!” said Williams.
The tornado damaged dozens of homes and businesses between Uptown Fayetteville and northeast of the Springdale Airport on Emma Avenue.
Principal Justin Swope said it wasn’t just the school’s gym that got damaged.
“We had some damage to the roof of our kitchen and in our cafeteria, there was a lot of water floor,” he said. “We had some classrooms that had a little bit of damage and the backdraft of the tornado did damage to the front porch. We were really fortunate that the damage done to the building was as little as it was.”
As the students play on the recess playground in the back of the school, you can still see tarps covering homes around the school grounds.
“It was very sobering to walk around our school neighborhood and see families that I knew and was invited into people’s homes to see the damage,” said Principal Swope.
“I was just numb,” said Williams. “I just didn’t think anything could ever happen in this area.”
Swope said they wasted no time in getting to work so they could open school the very next day after the tornado hit.
“We had structural engineers on the roof, making sure everything was safe by like one o’clock that afternoon,” he said. “We had well over 100 Springdale school district maintenance staff helping to clean up, we had insurance adjusters on the scene.”
Williams said they were able to share facilities at George Junior High School next door to get through the rest of last school year. And this year when the weather is nice, they are holding gym class outside on the slab of concrete where their gym once stood. He has large jugs of water ready to help the kids get through hot P.E. classes.
“I tell the kids it’s going to be warm, we’re not going to have anything next year so you just got to get acclimated to it, but they’ve made a good transition,” he said.
He said they will have to wait and see how this winter goes and how they will adjust to colder temperatures.
“We’re just enjoying this beautiful weather and not even thinking about that cold weather right now,” he said. “We’re just taking it day by day right now.”
Principal Swope said he is very grateful for all the support from the community in the months since the tornado. He said he even had people from out-of-state reaching out.
“I had people from Joplin reach out to us and they had been through this similarly, to a much greater degree, but it was just so great to see,” he said. “I really had one of the best seats in the house, as far as seeing how our community response to a situation like this.”
Principal Swope said they are still waiting to get insurance claims back to find out exactly how much money in damages there are.
He said on Tuesday, they will be having workers out at the school to test the soil ahead of building a new foundation for the new gym.
He said they already had plans in the works for major upgrades to George Elementary, so on top of a new gym, they will be updating the cafeteria, library and adding some additions to the office. However, he said it’s going to be long process to get all this completed.