Rebuilding the Oologah School
The morning of April 26, 1991, began rather uneventfully in the Ballard household. Then-Oologah-Talala Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard fixed breakfast for his three children before school. A television in the background announced the potential for severe weather, including tornadoes, in northeast Oklahoma later that day. The family would not be in the area, however, as they were prepared to leave town after school to visit family in southwest Oklahoma near Lawton. Little did they know that the visit would be a short one.
“All clocks stopped in the Oologah Public School System at precisely 9:43 pm on April 26, 1991.”
Ballard received a telephone call from Dan Willett, the Middle School principal, at approximately 1:30 am on April 27. Willett informed Ballard that “We have taken a major hit” from a tornado. After Ballard quizzed him on the extent of the damage, Willett responded by saying, “The only way I can describe it is to say that it is complete, utter, total devastation.” After making a few phone calls to other school officials, Ballard woke his family around 4:30 am so he could make the journey back to Oologah to begin the response to the disaster. He made a stop in Oklahoma City to brief State Superintendent Sandy Garrett on the disaster. Ballard arrived in Oologah around 9:30 am.
The warnings that others gave Ballard regarding the extent of the damage did not prepare him for what he saw upon first seeing the destruction. He was “shocked”. The northern part of the campus took the hardest hit, with considerable damage to the bus barn and the new vocational agriculture building. The bus and vehicle fleet belonging to the district was decimated. The only school vehicles not affected were the car driven by Ballard and a maintenance vehicle. Two buses could not be accounted for until Ballard, Garrett, and Governor David Walters conducted an aerial survey; the two buses were found partially submerged in Four Mile Creek a half mile from the school. Roofs were ripped off other buildings. Holes were punched in walls from flying debris. Damage to the district was so extensive that Ballard recommended to the school board that evening that school be dismissed for the remainder of the year. After all, even if an alternate school site could be found, there were no buses to transport students to and from the site. Twenty-three days of school were ultimately excused by the State. Total loss to the school district was $10,559,626.30.
On the 27th, the task of rebuilding the school seemed insurmountable. There were no concrete plans in place on how to deal with such a disaster, and problems seemed to arise at every turn. Late that evening, Ballard devised a plan on how to at least document, prioritize, and assign tasks and problems. He instructed his administrative staff to think of individual problems that needed to be faced. They would compile a “master list” and a formal plan of action at a meeting the next morning. At the meeting, each person was asked to voice – but not discuss – a problem. After all problems were listed, they were divided into broad groups – students, staff, reconstruction, insurance, community, and media – and assigned to an administrator. Of these categories, the most important two were issues pertaining to the students and the staff. In other words, the people, the relationships came first. It was made a priority to address conducting graduations, student grades, student belongings remaining in the school’s buildings, and other similar issues.
Due to the unique nature of the disaster, a state of emergency declaration was approved by the school board very early in the cleanup and rebuilding process, which allowed the overall process to proceed more quickly. There were only 72 days from the night of the tornado until the day school was to start in the Fall. The declaration was the first step to potentially allow for the suspension of the competitive bidding requirement for all school building projects. Ultimately, the requirement was waived, and reconstruction officially began only 11 days after the tornado struck.
During the early days of the disaster, elected representatives pressed for a FEMA disaster declaration. While the school’s buildings were insured, the bus fleet – which was a huge shock – and many outdoor structures, including light poles and fences at athletic fields, were not. The bus loss alone totaled almost a million dollars. Ballard met with elected representatives and FEMA officials a week after the tornado. On May 8th, local officials were notified that President Bush had made a disaster declaration. According to Ballard, the declaration, which requires a certain level of uninsured losses to be met, was made possible due in large part to the uninsured bus fleet. Had the buses been insured, there would likely have not been a disaster declaration for the area. FEMA monies paid for reconstruction of the football stadium, baseball complex, and the tennis courts, while the U.S. Department of Education covered the replacement of the bus fleet.
Reconstruction of the district continued through the summer, and the elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms were completed by the beginning of August. As a result, the school board decided that school would begin on time, with an August 12th reporting date for students. One of the more tense, nervous moments leading up to the first day of school involved the bus fleet. The bus company, Blue Bird, graciously agreed to front the money for the buses until the promised money from the government arrived, allowing the buses to be available for the first day of school. The buses did not arrive until late in the night of August 11th, in time for the first day, but late enough to make administrators sweat.
Despite the disaster, there were some positive things that came from the devastation. One of the biggest lessons learned from the disaster was that a school district absolutely had to have a plan of action to address a major event such as a tornado, fire, or flood. Procedures were established and a clearer knowledge of laws developed. Ballard, who was in school to earn his doctorate degree, did his dissertation research over the rebuilding of the school. Ballard indicated that superintendents from across the area and insurance companies have obtained his dissertation; to many, it is the standard for school disaster recovery. The disaster also made school officials more weather aware. There was a great sense of pride and camaraderie, also, because of what was accomplished. The focus was on the people and on relationships, and that made all the difference in the world.
Note: The National Weather Service in Tulsa would like to thank now-Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Ballard for talking with us about his role in the rebuilding of the Oologah-Talala Public Schools following the April 26, 1991, tornado. Much of the information in this writing is taken from that discussion, as well as from his doctoral dissertation, The Impact of Disaster on a School District: The Oologah Tornado, that he graciously allowed us to use.