School Staff And Students Cope With Tornado Aftermath

A woman makes her way into the damaged main entrance of Joplin High School in Joplin, Mo., Tuesday, May 24, 2011. i i

A woman makes her way into the damaged main entrance of Joplin High School in Joplin, Mo., Tuesday, May 24, 2011. Mark Schiefelbein/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Schiefelbein/ASSOCIATED PRESS
A woman makes her way into the damaged main entrance of Joplin High School in Joplin, Mo., Tuesday, May 24, 2011.

A woman makes her way into the damaged main entrance of Joplin High School in Joplin, Mo., Tuesday, May 24, 2011.

Mark Schiefelbein/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The tornado that blew through Joplin, Mo. this week killed over 100 people, injured at least 750 and destroyed many buildings, including Joplin High School. The school has been canceled for all students in the Joplin School district. Host Michel Martin speaks with Joplin High School Principal Dr. Kerry Sachetta and student Corey Hounschell.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Supreme Court on Monday ordered California to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates over the next two years, even if that means freeing some of them. The court ruled that the overcrowding is so intense in some institutions that inmates are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, which violates the Constitution. We'll talk with a journalist covering the case, and a prison-reform advocate, about what happens next.

That's in just a few minutes but first, we're following the aftermath of yet another of this season's deadly storms. On Sunday, a tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri, and killed more than 120 people so far. Search and rescue missions are continuing today. Another several hundred people have been injured. Well, obviously, much of the attention of the authorities is directed toward those missing and the many people who were most badly injured. We don't want to forget that this is a special time of year for students and families - some of whom had just enjoyed graduation, and were looking forward to summer and all that goes with it.

So we decided to check in with Kerry Sachetta, principal of Joplin High School. Also joining us is Corry Hounschell. He is a senior at Joplin High School,and he just graduated on Sunday. And they're with us from Joplin, Missouri, and I thank you both so much for joining us.

KERRY SACHETTA: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: And Corey, let me just say congratulations to you.

COREY HOUNSCHELL: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: So Sunday was going along - what, as usual?

HOUNSCHELL: Um-hum.

MARTIN: And then what happened?

HOUNSCHELL: Well, I was - after the ceremony, we go into a separate room to get our diplomas. And I was getting my diploma, and some administrators came in and said that there was a tornado on the ground in Kansas, but it was moving really slowly, and they just wanted to give us a heads up. So I got my diploma and I, you know, I say goodbye to my friends and my family. And I headed down the road, and the tornado sirens went off.

So I turned on the radio, and they said it was on 7th and Schifferdecker, which I was - at the time I was on 7th street but I was Schifferdecker's maybe 30, 40 blocks away from where I was. So I wasn't too worried. And then they came on just a few seconds later and said that it was on 7th and Range Line - which is, you know, maybe eight blocks from where I was. So then I started to worry a little bit. But I just continued to head home, away from where the storm was.

And my dad called me, and he was kind of panicking - which made me, you know, realize how maybe this is more serious than I thought. And so we ended up making it to a friend's house - who lived right around the block. We just - they didn't even know we were coming. We just ran inside and ran down to their basement, where they were. And then maybe 30 seconds later, my friend's father opened the door to the outside, and there were huge trees down and everything.

I mean, we just barely missed the storm coming through.

MARTIN: I'm so sorry, but I'm so glad you're OK. Principal Sachetta, what about you? Where were you?

SACHETTA: I was still in Missouri Southern State University, where we held the ceremonies. We were just collecting things diplomas, caps and gowns, and things that we use to make sure the ceremony goes off well - to collect them to get ready to be picked up the next day, my secretary and I. And there were probably about a 100 to 150 people left in the arena. We were called to go down to the basement of the arena and take cover.

It was probably 5:15, 5:20, somewhere in there. And we went down, and we started getting text messages that parts of Joplin were hit. But we didn't know, you know, to what area because there was too many sketchy reports. After the storm kind of subsided, people started leaving the arena and driving back into town. That's when I started getting text messages that the high school was hit, different parts of town.

And as I drove up to the high school area, and I saw Franklin Technology Center - which is our career center - and the high school, I just really couldn't believe what I saw. The Franklin Technology Center was completely demolished. You could not even tell what kind of a building it was. And the high school was very recognizable, but it was - the damage was just tremendous. I mean, I can't describe it. You almost feel like your heart drops, and there's a total emptiness because you knew all the people that lived around there, and there was so many that were homeless. And then to look at the school, where all the things...

We just celebrated 50 years of being at that location. And then the more you drove through Joplin, the worse it got because it was just rows of houses and houses - after each other, from every kind of neighborhood. And every kind of business was hit. It just was - you see things on television but until you see it in person, and you realize what you're really seeing, and you put faces and names to places and things - it's devastating.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and we're talking about the aftermath of the tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday. We're speaking with Kerry Sachetta - that's who you just heard. He's the principal of Joplin High School, which was substantially damaged. Corey Hounschell is also with us. He's a senior at Joplin High School. He just graduated Sunday night, just a little bit before the storm hit. Corey, do you mind if I ask how was your house?

HOUNSCHELL: My house is fine but, I mean, literally four blocks north of my house there's just, I mean, there's nothing. There's houses gone, it's just a field of just bricks and woods and just trash and just people's - you know, people's lives...

MARTIN: And as I understand it your sister lives near the high school?

HOUNSCHELL: She actually lives like a block, like, directly behind the high school, yeah.

MARTIN: And she's OK, I hope?

HOUNSCHELL: Yeah, her and her daughter and one of their friends was - they made it down to their basement right before the storm hit, and we hadn't heard from them. So the next day, whenever it was light, me and my family drove over to her house to see if we could find it. And you know, honestly it's really even hard to tell where her house was because you can't - I mean, there's no street signs anymore and there's no houses anymore. So you can't tell where you're at.

We finally found her house, and it was completely gone. And their car was in the front yard, just mangled and twisted up and - but behind - we walked around behind the house, and the basement was still intact. And you could see the hole that they had crawled out of, out of their basement. But yeah, she's OK.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm so glad. Well, Corey, I'm sorry, this was such a happy time for you. You know, you just graduated...

HOUNSCHELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and you were looking forward to your party and - do you mind if I ask, what are the rest of your summer plans? Or what were your plans, and what do you do now - do you know?

HOUNSCHELL: Well, I had just started a job here in town, at Lowe's, and - which I heard was destroyed but it actually wasn't; it was damaged. So I'm trying to help with clean-up there. This month, I had planned on just working and then taking the next month off before I go to college. But as far as I know, that's still the plan. And I mean, my grandparents lost their house as well so we're helping them clean stuff out and relocate. So for a while, I guess, my day-to-day routine is going to be kind of interrupted but, you know, nothing too serious. I was really lucky.

MARTIN: Where are you going to college?

HOUNSCHELL: The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

MARTIN: Oh. Well, congratulations.

HOUNSCHELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: I know you're looking forward to that. And Principal Sachetta, can you tell us a little bit more about just the people you work with and other kids at the school and, you know, what you've been hearing in the last couple of days?

SACHETTA: The people I work with are doing - in pretty good shape. We have about 170 or so staff members altogether, and we've only been like - not accounting for two staff members right now. We just haven't been able to make contact with them, but we're very hopeful that they're OK. Several of our staff members, we couldn't account for a couple of days. And they were involved in clean-up efforts or rescue efforts or so on. But many of them came in yesterday. And everybody has, considering the situation, pretty good spirits right now because everybody's just wanting to help everybody.

We've made contact with probably about half of our students so far, but we're going to continue to make phone calls. Facebook and social networking and text messaging - has been a big help to get a hold of students. You know, coaches, sponsors that talk to their kids through text message, to make sure that they know how to get to practice or games or whatever, has been a big help. Trying to do the best we can to account for all of our students and then get them food, clothing, whatever they need, resources. We have a command center here at North Middle School, and we're getting resources of supplies out to people there. And then in the coming weeks, we're going to plan next year.

MARTIN: The school year is effectively over, I would assume. So were there any more days left for kids who weren't graduating?

SACHETTA: Yes, there were nine days left of school. And that's been canceled, of course. Almost half the students in the district were affected by this, in terms of the number of buildings hit and the number of students that are in those buildings. So the last few days of school have been forgiven by the Department of Education of Missouri. And we're not sure about summer school yet. There's a good thought that that might be a possibility.

MARTIN: And what about the coming school year? What do you do? The high school was damaged to the point where you can't use it at the moment. What do you think? Do you - any idea?

SACHETTA: Well, we have Old Memorial High School that's still left. It holds about 1,200 students, which isn't near enough to hold our student population. And we haven't decided what we're going to do. Back in 1984, there were two high schools in Joplin and there was a fire at one of the schools, so they used the other school to do a split schedule kind of day - where one school went in the morning, from early in the morning 'til about noon, and the other school came in about noon and went late and, you know, early - into the early evening.

So those are all possibilities, and using some old ideas from that. We just haven't made any determinations right now. The main thing is, is East Middle School was badly damaged. And there's about 600 students in that school. And if it's possible to get back in that school, that would be a big plus for us because there's 600 kids there. There's 600 kids at Cecil Floyd Elementary. And those are - that's a large part of our district population right there. If they can't get into those buildings, then that would cause even more ripple effect as far as the displaced students.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for speaking with us. You have so much to do. But before I let you go, I know you're so focused on helping everybody else, but how are you?

SACHETTA: I'm doing OK. It's just been an adrenaline rush the whole time. Every now and then, you sit and you think about people, and you think about what's going on, and it's easy to get very emotional. But I've got a lot of support. The principal network that I'm in, and friends that I have around the area, have been awesome to call and text. And my wife has been a great support. We did lose my father-in-law in the process. My mother-in-law, she was remarried a few years ago and her husband was in a nursing home. And he had he was badly sick and had Alzheimer's, and wasn't well. And the nursing home was in the path of the storm. And - but we lost him.

MARTIN: I'm so sorry.

SACHETTA: So that's been devastating from the family aspect, too.

MARTIN: I'm so sorry.

SACHETTA: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: Well, our very best wishes to you. Obviously, the thoughts of the country are with you right now. And we thank you so much for speaking with us.

SACHETTA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Kerry Sachetta is the principal of Joplin High School, which was badly damaged by the tornado that hit last Sunday, the line of storms that hit Missouri last weekend. Corey Hounschell is a senior - graduating senior at Joplin High School. As you heard, he just graduated on Sunday, and he's headed to college in the fall. And they were both kind enough to join us from Joplin, Missouri. I thank you both so much for speaking with us. And our very best wishes to you both.

SACHETTA: Thank you.

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