Some school buildings condemned, others still closed in tornado aftermath

Johnnie Johnson, principal of Herald Whitaker Middle School in Salyersville, on Wednesday surveyed the school's library, damaged by a tornado last week.
Johnnie Johnson, principal of Herald Whitaker Middle School in Salyersville, on Wednesday surveyed the school's library, damaged by a tornado last week. Herald-Leader

Eastern Kentucky school districts that were hammered by last week's tornadoes and thunderstorms are hoping to reopen next week, but some of the worst hit still are scrambling to find places for their students to go.

Educators said the school year has been significantly disrupted for thousands of students.

Some districts have been closed this week because of storm damage, while others are closed because school buildings are being used for storm relief efforts.

Schools in Magoffin, Morgan and Wolfe counties sustained severe damage. CLICK AND DRAG on the image below to see a 360-degree panorama of damage at Herald Whitaker Middle School:

Work crews in West Liberty were busy Wednesday, rushing to fabricate classrooms in an empty factory building so students from heavily damaged West Liberty Elementary would have a place to attend classes.

West Liberty Elementary and the central offices of Morgan County Schools were so badly damaged that both have been condemned, district spokeswoman Jennifer Salyer said Wednesday. The district's football field, bleachers, locker rooms and press box were destroyed.

Salyer said the plan is for West Liberty Elementary students and the district offices to move into the former Boneal factory building so that classes may resume Monday — if families in the storm-ravaged community are ready. Friday's tornado killed six people in Morgan County.

Meanwhile, Magoffin County Schools might face an even bigger challenge. Major storm damage to Herald Whitaker Middle School and Salyersville Grade School have left more than a third of the district's 2,100 students with no place to attend classes.

Magoffin Superintendent Joe Hunley said the two buildings were so badly damaged that neither can be repaired before the end of this school year. Indeed, he said district officials were meeting with insurers Wednesday to discuss whether Whitaker Middle should be repaired or torn down.

"There's no chance of utilizing either of the two buildings this year," Hunley said. "Right now, we're just trying to figure out how we can get back, how we can provide some instruction for these kids, and where we're going to do it."

Scott Helton, assistant Magoffin superintendent, said both schools lost parts of their roofs and sustained heavy damage to their libraries and other areas.

"You can stand inside and look up and see sky," he said.

Between them, the middle school and the grade school serve about 850 students.

Magoffin school officials say they are looking at the possibility of dispersing Salyersville Grade School students among the district's other elementaries, and shifting Whitaker Middle School students to Magoffin County High School or moving them into a former school building now being used for offices.

"We're even looking at using modular buildings if we have to, but that's not a popular choice for us," Hunley said. "We're very limited on any commercial space anywhere here. We've looked at a large church here in town ... we're just exploring all options right now."

Magoffin County High School also suffered roof damage when three roof-mounted heating and cooling units were blown over.

"I'm very doubtful we're going to be back in session next week," Hunley said.

Wolfe County Schools also faces major problems. Hail punctured hundreds of holes in the roof at Wolfe County High School during the storm, causing much of the interior to be flooded by rain last week and melting snow earlier this week. Most of the district's school buses were damaged and will need extensive repairs, Superintendent Kenny Bell said.

He said the district hopes to resume classes Monday, but that will hinge on completing repairs at the high school, which might require shoring up part of the roof, and getting the buses back in operation.

"As of Monday, we only had two buses that we could actually put on the road," he said. "But we have ordered all the parts we need and we hope to get the buses fixed this week."

Menifee County Schools came through the storm without major damage. But Superintendent Charles Mitchell said the district is closed because two of its schools are being used as drop-off points for storm-relief donations, and some relief workers are staying at Menifee County High School. Classes should resume Monday, Mitchell said.

Salyer, the Morgan County Schools spokeswoman, said district officials are using Facebook and Twitter and planning a series of community meetings to keep students and families informed about school repairs. District officials think they can be ready to resume classes Monday, she said, but many residents still might be struggling with the pain of losing loved ones, homes or possessions.

"We understand that the community likely will not be ready by Monday," Salyer said. "But we just want to be ready whenever they are ready."

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