Oklahoma Tornado Survivors Start New School Year

By: ABC News Email
By: ABC News Email

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Nearly three months after a massive tornado wound through Moore, Okla., destroying two elementary schools on the last day of school, parents and students headed back to class Friday for the first day of the new school year.

Two elementary schools, Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary, were destroyed in the EF-5 tornado that hit the Oklahoma City suburb. Twenty-four people were killed in the storm, including seven students from Plaza Towers Elementary.

On Friday morning, Plaza Towers Elementary students started a new school year with therapy dogs and a large banner that read "Plaza Towers Elementary School. Welcome."

The approximate 300 students are using a facility formerly used by the Central Junior High School, now nicknamed "Plaza 800," a combination of the elementary school's name and the building's former nickname.

Tammy Baker, the principal of Central Junior High School, said the building was refurbished to make it more suitable for elementary-school-age students.

"[The tornado] barely skirted us," said Baker. "For us to have been spared from the storm damage we are fortunate and we're excited to be hosting the Plaza Elementary students."

In front of the newly refurbished school building, parents could be seen taking pictures of their kids as they headed off to embark on a brand new school year.

Cameron Richardson was finishing the third grade when the storm hit last May. A picture of him getting rescued from the rubble became one of the iconic images of the storm. His mother, Alicia Richardson, saw him off on his first day in the fourth grade.

"I am nervous for him. I just hope it doesn't storm the next few days," Richardson told The Associated Press.

"I'm a little nervous about the beginning of school because I want the kids so badly to feel good and comfortable at school," Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson told The Associated Press.

Approximately five miles away, the 567 students of Briarwood Elementary are settling into the Emmaus Baptist Church, where they would remain until next year.

Shelley Jaques-Mcmillan, the principal of Briarwood Elementary, said the teachers and church officials have taken to calling the combined facility "Sch-urch."

"It's been a great start," Jaques-Mcmillan told ABCNews.com. "We all fit. ... We're in three different buildings. It's like a college campus."

Jaques-Mcmillan said the children appeared excited to return to school but that she'd seen more tears and anxiety from the student's parents than in other years.

"I told them you guys can stay as long as you need to," Jaques-Mcmillan said. "I want everyone to feel safe."

While the storm's aftermath had been devastating, Jaques-Mcmillan said there had been an outpouring of support from volunteers and businesses.

When Jaques-Mcmillan had to move furniture into the new school and believed she'd have just her husband helping out, 200 volunteers showed up.

Additionally, about 50 people have volunteered to be "on call" through the year and come to the school to help whenever severe weather is predicted.

Two new playgrounds will be built, one at the church and another at the rebuilt school by the nonprofit company Kaboom! with money donated from Nike.

"There are so many people here to take care of us," said Jaques-Mcmillan. "That has meant a lot, and for us to be together. We get to rewrite the ending, it doesn't end with May 20."

Related stories:

El Reno, OK Tornado Widest Ever Recorded

Storm Chasers React To Death of Fellow Chasers In Oklahoma Tornado

Rebuilding, Reassuring Top Goals For Moore Schools

Kids, Teachers From Devastated Oklahoma School Reunite

Kansas Native, Teacher Tell Story Of Survival After Moore Tornado

UPDATE: Medical Examiner Now Says 24 Dead In Moore, OK Twister

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