For 35 years, I watched the weather and worried about tornadoes hitting a school while the students were present. Those of us who have ever worked in public schools know the awesome responsibility we have of protecting the most precious possession that people have, their children.
The thing I always feared most happened on November 27, 1973.
At that time I was Area Principal of Southaven Schools consisting of the high school which housed over 1,200 students, as well as two elementary schools. Each of the elementary schools had approximately 600 students each had a principal in charge. My job was to be principal, along with three assistants, of the high school and to be administratively responsible for the elementary schools.
The weather that day was very warm for November. About 10 a.m., the temperature was 70 degrees and the clouds looked dark and threatening. However neither radio nor TV was forecasting any storms. While the high school students were having lunch, the sky became very dark and loud thunder could be heard in the southwest. I went to the second floor and down to a boy’s restroom to check on those that were smoking and what they might be smoking. As I walked in, no one was in the bathroom. I looked out the open window and was shocked to see a tornado touching down at the far end of the football field. As fast as I could travel, I ran to my office and told the secretary to hit the emergency bell. The bell sounded about a half of a ring, all went dark, and what sounded like an explosion went through the building. As I glanced out the front window to my office I saw debris go up from the elementary school about a half mile from my office. I knew then that the building had been struck by the tornado. Not only did that building house some 600 students but two of my children were among those in the building.
I quickly gave instructions to the three assistant principals in my building and made my way out in very heavy rain and wind. Irealized that I could not get my pickup out because of very congested traffic so I did the only thing I could do and that was to begin to run toward the elementary school facing a heavy downpour, lighting and wind. The half-mile seemed more like 10 miles but I finally arrived and went inside the building. As I approached the building I observed that about half the roof was no more and that two mobile classrooms were destroyed. As I went by an empty office I heard the phone ring. It was NBC news out of New York asking if I could confirm whether a tornado had hit an elementary school. I confirmed that it had and was about to say that no other information was available when the phones went dead. As I made my way down the hall I was walking in water over my ankles. I checked with the teacher of every group still sitting with their hands over their heads. I told some groups to move when I observed a block of the roof appeared ready to fall on the group of children. I observed the group our son was in and his only remark was, “Daddy, I lost my raincoat.” He was drenched and I assured him, “Son, it is okay because we can get another one.”
As you can imagine crowd control was a problem. Using a Memphis city policeman’s phone, I called the Governor’s office and was patched into his phone. I asked for the National Guard if possible and he assured me they would be on the way. The Guard arrived about dark and the Commanding Officer met me and said, “Sir, we are ready to assume control if you are.”
I assured him that they looked like a band of angels to me. They were met by the PTA ladies with coffee, sandwiches and hot soup. I am thankful for a school and community that pulled together so well.
There were no weather radios at that time. The tornado came under the radar according to the National Weather Service in Memphis and therefore we had no warning at all.
I strongly urge every home to have a weather radio and to monitor it in case of severe weather. The radar systemd used today can almost point out the street or road where a tornado touches down.
I urge each school office to have a weather radio and monitor it. The lives of our students are at stake. We can save lives by being prepared.
Billy McCord is a retired school administrator and an Elder in the United Methodist Church. He is Pastor of Shady Grove UM Church in Calhoun County and represents District 3 on the Calhoun County School Board as well as serving as President of the board. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.