Tornado-Ravaged Jacksonville State Prepares to Head Back to Class

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Blue tarps cap tornado damaged buildings around Jacksonville State University. A tornado packing winds of up to 140 miles per hour struck the area on March 19th.

Andrew Yeager,WBHM

A temporary fence surrounds Brittany Harper’s dorm. She’s a freshman at Jacksonville State University, and even though she’s from Jacksonville, Thursday was her first time seeing the destruction.

“It’s indescribable,” Harper says. “I don’t have words really.”

The roof is gone and one of the lights by the entrance is cockeyed. A bicycle is still tossed against the bike rack.

Harper was among the first students back on campus Thursday as JSU prepares to resume classes Monday after a tornado slammed into the campus and surrounding community March 19th. The school was on spring break when the storm hit. That’s seen as a big reason there were no deaths.

Harper says she took valuable things like her laptop with her during the break. But she left other things like clothes and books in the dorm

“I’m hoping that everything will be ok but we really don’t know,” Harper says.

Her roommate Abbie Beatty pulls up and they head inside.

The building is a bit musty. The pair duck around a plastic tube that hangs from the ceiling to draw out moisture. When they open the door to their room, Harper lets out a surprised “oh” as her eyes take in the scene.

There are bins and plastic drawers full of clothes on their beds and desks. A rug is gone, presumably soaked by the storm.

“I’m relieved that everything is ok,” Harper says. “But I am kind of overwhelmed because I wasn’t expecting it to be like everything [is out of place].”

As they examine their stuff more closely, Beatty finds little surprises, like the tie-died shirt that bled onto another. There’s food in the mini-fridge that’ll be thrown out. Beatty picks up some wrinkled books off her desk.

“These are pretty ruined. So I guess we’ll just see what they say when I bring them back to the bookstore,” Beatty says.

As they gather up bedding to wash, Beatty relays a story from her mom who works at the university. An elementary school class in Madison County wanted to help. So the students collected $18 in quarters to help students do laundry.

For some storm victims though, it’ll take more than laundry to get them back on their feet.


Getting Back to Normal

JSU President John Beehler says 200 students who lived on campus were displaced. Another 1,200 who lived off-campus lost their homes in the tornado, too.  Beehler estimates rebuilding will cost at least $42 million. They’ll spend at least $4.5 million just on clean up.

Beehler says a big part of getting back to normal is having students and faculty on campus and starting classes again. But that hasn’t been easy. For instance, the business school was destroyed, so those classes will be at a local elementary school.

Students face new decisions as they pick up with their academic work. University leaders gave students the option to take their current grade and be done with classes. But for some, such as nursing students who have to complete a specific number of work hours, packing it up isn’t as easy.

Still, Beehler says graduation will go on as scheduled, as will the summer and fall terms.

“There’s gonna be some trees missing. There’s gonna be a little noise around here putting the roofs back on and fixing some of the buildings,” Beehler says. “But I think we’re on the right track.”

Inside the tornado donation center at First United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, among the stacks of canned goods, cleaning supplies and bottles of water, JSU sophomore Devon Hudson is getting some hands-on experience. She’s a social work student and says she’s been at the center almost every day since it opened. It’s quiet now, but she expects that to change as students return.

“We’re ready for them,” says Hudson.

The donation center will close on Saturday. Students and residents can still get help from other organizations.

It’s a sign the response phase of this tornado is coming to an end. The long-term recovery is just beginning.

Andrew Yeager

Andrew Yeager