Q. In 2005, your elementary school was hit by an F2 tornado, fortunately while no one was there. Before that tornado, did you as district leaders feel like you were prepared for potential disasters such as these?
Ricky Line: We felt we were but we probably weren’t. We were very fortunate that it wasn’t during the daytime, we were very fortunate that the rain stopped before the tornado came through. We literally had books, pencils and papers that didn’t get moved off of desks and up above it, there’s no ceiling, no roof. From there, we were very fortunate that the water damage did not get us.
We thought we were prepared, but I don’t know if there is a way besides having good insurance and having good people you can trust, I don’t know if there’s a way.
Q. When it did strike, what did you find out about your preparations?
Line: We called KSBA immediately. I was in North Carolina visiting my daughter at the seminary and got the phone call and we drove straight back. Before I got back, KSBIT (the Kentucky School Boards Insurance Trust) was onsite with people, guiding and directing, telling us what to do to save from any further damage because there was the expectation of more rain. We then met extensively for two days on what to do with our students.
Mr. Belt called a meeting of our board the first available night we had and assured the parents that we were going to do everything we can to keep the students at their own location because word had spread that we were going to have to ship them to all five other schools (in the district).
We felt confident that we could contain the damage if we were given a week. We were and the board agreed. Within a week, we had a roof on a building that was 70 years old that had no roof and mobile units for six classrooms that we just couldn’t repair.
William Belt: And the cafeteria.
Line: And a cafeteria that we could not repair.
Belt: That was a challenge, but the teachers and staff were excellent. There were never any complaints.
Line: They were happy to be in their own school, they were happy to have their own students and not be separated. If we would have had to spread students out, we would have literally had families with kids in three different schools: first and second grade goes here, third and fourth here, we would have had kids spread out all over the entire county.
And because of KSBIT, we got this done. If there had been issues with the insurance, if there had been any hold ups saying, ‘We have to check with this, we have to check with that,’ but we were told right up front that, ‘We’re going to cover full replacement cost; we’re going to take care of what you need to get you back to where you can function.’ We did not worry. And this makes it sound like a KSBIT sale, but it’s really not.
Q. As a board member, I’m sure you received a number of phone calls during this situation. What was this experience like for you as a board member?
Belt: There were quite a few calls, health concerns. the school had some asbestos tiles — that was probably the greatest concern. But we got the people in, did the tests and no student was in that building until we got 100 percent OK that it was safe to go back.
But the community pulled together. I had a number of questions, but not that many concerns. I think they trust us enough to know that we’ll do the right thing. They wanted to stay in the building, they didn’t want to be bused around the county.
Q. I don’t know if many students lost homes or had homes damaged, but I’m sure some were at least traumatized somewhat by the experience. What lessons did you learn in how to help students and families through a disaster like this?
Line: Traumatized more than homes. We were very fortunate here. Out of the 20 homes that were lost, we might of had two that had students. The tornado hit an older part of the county where most of the people who lived there didn’t have kids.
We had two or three families that we had to worry about.
Belt: And minor injuries. No deaths.
Q. What areas did you find your preparations needed to be improved, not just for tornadoes, but any type of crisis? Any places where you have gone back and updated your emergency response plans?
Line: We have done that, but it was time to do that anyway. The bottom line: We took everything a lot more serious. We always did our tornado drills, we always did our fire drills. That was something we were supposed to do, that was something that was good practice.
It went from practice to, when these happen now, we’re in serious mode. Everything has to be right. If kids can’t get from A to B in a certain amount of time, we have to change it. We looked at everything much more harder than we ever had because we felt comfortable with what we were doing.
Now, even if we’re comfortable, we ask, is it logical? Is that time frame to get everyone out of the cafeteria at Hart County High School to another hall, can that be done in two minutes or less? We assumed it could; now we know it can.
We’re just generally taking it all more serious, knowing how close we were last time. Not that we weren’t taking it serious, but it’s just another level of awareness.
Q. Can you talk about the accommodations you made at the school to get things up and running and kids back in the classrooms?
Line: We had a full, 175-seat cafeteria brought in, with walkways from the building to it that were covered, for snow, which we knew was coming in the winter, and for rain. All of that was done within a week. We had four classrooms brought to us, within a week. We had fencing put around the whole complex so that people could not get into those areas.
Our board was great. They said, ‘Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, we’re going to take care of our students and we’ll worry about where the money comes from later. That night at the board meeting, the vote was 5-0. And this was one school out of six, and all five board members said, “Whatever it takes, because that could have been any of our schools.’ Everyone was happy to make sure those kids had whatever they needed.
Q. How long before everything was repaired and reopened?
Line: Seven months. It was the next July. We started school in August and everything was back in order.
Belt: I guess the silver lining is, we got a new school.
Line: It was a Category 4 school (before the tornado) then and was getting ready to be a Category 5 school within a year and with the damage done to it, there was no need to put a lot of money back into it. So we have a brand new school on the same spot. First new school in Hart County since 1968. And the board played a big part of that, saving the bonding money and making sure we were ready. That was in the plans, but it was five years away. We went from five years to one year over night.
Q. As a board member did you feel like the training you have received prepared your board to respond to this challenge?
Belt: It did, but having good administrators, superintendent, construction people, and we had lots of help. And having a good board team. There was no animosity, no ‘I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do that.’ We’ve been lucky.
Q. Any other lessons learned that you can share not only with districts like Morgan and Magoffin whose communities were devastated by the March 2 tornadoes, but other districts who can use these experiences to become better prepared?
Line: Have a plan, make sure you review that plan and don’t take that plan for granted that’s on the shelf. When it says, ‘These rooms will go from this point to that point in a tornado,’ and anything changes in that building, that needs to be looked at. For instance, we have a freshman academy at the high school, and the freshmen go to this room or that room. Well, if next year they don’t have a freshman academy and there are sophomore classes down there and the signs say, “The freshman academy goes here,’ you have to review all of that every year and anytime anyone moves out of a room just to make sure the documentation is there.
And those new people who are there, do they know where to go? Those are just logistics that need to be looked at at every place, every year. And from this, we have. We’ve gone up a notch on our ability to look at our plans a little harder.
Q. Any other lessons you can share?
Line: For me, the board has to be in agreement to do what’s best for kids now. And it may mean that the school that was destroyed gets more of an allotment next because of everything that was destroyed.
Belt: Try to get along as a board and we’ve been blessed with good people. We found out a lot about the community.
Line: I just feel for anyone who goes through it. Emotionally, it’s just hard. These were 16-18-hour days that we all put in during that time. I feel for the administrators (in Magoffin and Morgan) who are there sifting through and trying to take care of kids. Besides the emotions of looking at what’s damaged, in my case, my house was damaged. When we got back from North Carolina, I looked at my wife and said, ‘You’ve got the house, I’ve got the school.’ And I know there are administrators over there that are giving up of their family to deal with this. In my case it was just an upstairs to repair; for them, there is no house. And the emotion they’re going through of knowing they don’t have a house and yet they have to worry about 500 students in their school, it’s tough.