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One Year Later, Canadian Valley is on the Mend

May 31, 2014 marks the one-year anniversary of the EF3 tornado that struck Canadian Valley Technology Center in El Reno. This was the widest tornado in recorded history.
One Year Later, Canadian Valley is on the Mend

Canadian Valley Technology Center Superintendent Greg Winters

At 6:20 p.m. on May 31, 2013, the lights went dark at Canadian Valley Technology Center. The largest ever tornado, 2.6 miles wide and packing 295 mph winds, crossed State Highway 81 in El Reno and made an unusual turn northward on a direct path toward the school.

Fifteen people took shelter in a basement classroom as the tornado destroyed the buildings and campus outside.

As soon as he could, the school’s superintendent, Greg Winters, left his house and worked his way past downed power lines and floodwaters to get to the campus.

All nine buildings on campus were heavily damaged. What wasn’t destroyed by the storm was soaked by nearly 10 inches of rain.

All 15 people who had been inside were safe.

Later that evening on ABC news, Winters gave the first of many interviews to come. He announced resiliently to the nation that school would start in August. He kept his promise, thanks to the kindness of many along the way and a resilient faculty and staff.

Providing Leadership in a Crisis

In the immediate days to follow, Winters dealt with scores of media, FEMA, structural engineers, emergency personnel, and the list goes on. Bill Bradley, assistant superintendent, had recently been handed the role of chief operations officer. Bradley immediately began the task of providing leadership to a team of administrators and professionals from around the district. For some, this would be their first day with Canadian Valley Technology Center.

This team was tasked with relocating 130 employees, the district’s central business office and the programs and services of an entire campus in just 75 days.

The initial meetings with the team focused on critical actions. An Emergency Board meeting had to be called, business operations needed to be re-established, current programs and services would need new homes and locations. Fortunately, the district has the Dr. Earl Cowan Campus just 11 miles from the El Reno site. The campus served as a district headquarters during those first few months.

Ideas and strategies started coming from all of the team members. Gayla Lutts, El Reno campus director, brought up the idea of looking at the former Holt Chevrolet dealership in Yukon that had closed several years before.

“In a matter of a few days, we were working with construction crews planning the locations of shops and classrooms,” Lutts said.

The business office was operational in a couple of days at the Cowan campus. Bradley said this was possible because the file servers and data storage devices were found dry and recoverable.

“You can call it luck or divine intervention,” Bradley said. “Combined with an amazing IT department, it allowed us to get a critical part of our operation up and running quickly.”

One of the most important critical actions the administration took was to personally call all of the faculty and staff and organize a meeting for the employees on Monday morning, June 3.

Staff was understandably shell-shocked after seeing images of the devastation on television and the internet. They needed the personal reassurance that no jobs would be eliminated and we are going to have school.

During the June 3 meeting, the leadership team provided words of encouragement and set a positive tone for the future. After a safety briefing from the construction management crew, the employees were allowed to go to the site to recover personal belongings, equipment, and critical instructional material.

Canadian Valley Strong

Staff borrowed a motto from the unwavering resilience shown by people in the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy and more recently from those recovering from the catastrophe of the May 20, 2013, Moore, OK, tornado.

The nation mourned after learning that seven schoolchildren at Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary were among 23 people to perish that day in an EF5 tornado. Hundreds were injured. Many lost homes or businesses.

Lutts was raised in the Moore area and has family there. On the afternoon of May 20, she watched the weather reports from the conference room television at the El Reno Campus.

She became anxious as she realized some of her family was in the path of the Moore tornado. That evening she learned that a cousin had lost her life, two other family members were severely injured, and her brother’s house had been destroyed.

“My cousin’s funeral was two days before the El Reno tornado,” Lutts said. “That fact put things in perspective for me. We only lost buildings – tools to accomplish our goal of educating students. Thankfully, no one lost their life at the El Reno campus.” Lutts had ended a very emotional week when the events of May 31 would redefine her new role as campus director at Canadian Valley Technology Center.

Media State of Mind

Winters, meantime, stayed behind at the El Reno campus to deal with the mass of media, most of which were still a half hour drive south in Moore.

He also posted daily reports on the school’s website and emailed messages to local, state and national media.

Bradley, meanwhile, sent out daily messages to staff by telephone to keep them informed of developments. Staff and friends of Canadian Valley Technology Center expressed appreciation for the words of the men with more than 70 years combined educational experience.

“People need a face in times of crisis,” Winters said. “Like it or not, I had to be that face.”

National media broadcast from Canadian Valley’s parking lot. Networks were joined by CNN and Fox News. The New York Times sent a reporter. Dozens of others joined for a morning after press conference hosted by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin.

“I did one interview with a reporter from South Korea,” Winters said. “I don’t know how many interviews I did. It’s part of the job.”

Anybody who asked for an interview got one. Winters stayed on task with the messages: school starts in August, and nobody loses their job.

A Helpful Spirit

Overwhelming generosity by a local church and by a neighboring technology center kept spirits high.

There was no room in the Holt building for the school’s three-star childcare center nor for the Early Care and Education program classrooms.

En route to the emergency school board meeting, instructors Cheryl Scott and Deborah White passed by a church.

Scott pulled her car into the parking lot of the Church of Christ South Yukon. The pair was greeted by youth minister, Gene Newberry, and soon thereafter was sitting before the church elders.

Church leaders offered their children’s Sunday School rooms to the school for as long as they needed them. No charge. The church became a saving grace for the 30 children enrolled at the childcare facility.

“I know that all our equipment changes the way that the church staff uses the spaces we occupy. They have shared with us that we are their mission for the next couple of years. For that, we are so appreciative.” White said.

Francis Tuttle Technology Center in Oklahoma City provided space so that Canadian Valley’s Aviation Maintenance program could continue, and students nearing completion could find work. Evening Cosmetology also was given temporary space until the Holt building was ready for students.

Cause for Celebration

Instructors and staff, many of whom would normally have been on summer vacation, sifted through what remained of personal effects, essential records and instructional materials. They also loaded equipment that could be salvaged into rented moving vans and onto flat bed trucks loaned by Central Technology Center.

Staff put in long days in the summer heat to move equipment. Oklahoma got a reprieve from two straight summers of triple-digit temperatures. Still, July humidity kicked in, and the mid- to upper-90s became very challenging.

Canadian Valley faculty and staff stayed true to the goal of recovering equipment and materials in order to prepare a place where students would once again get a quality education.

Francis Tuttle administrators generously prepared a cookout for the entire El Reno staff the day before school began.

“By this time, we had cause to celebrate,” Winters said. “Our employees are amazing. I’m so proud of our maintenance and IT department. You never really know how good your staff is until something like this happens.”

August 15 arrived, and school began on time. Space is a luxury no longer afforded for a time. A chain-link fence is all that separates precision machining programs from welding. The same fence divides diesel students from those in heat and air conditioning.

Construction Trades and Service Careers share a shop. Graphic design students occupy what used to be an apartment on the third floor.

There is one career major that was nearly a perfect fit. Automotive service technology students train in a space tailor-made for car repairs.

At the October board meeting, the school’s architectural firm unveiled the footprint for the El Reno Campus reconstruction. Tornado safe rooms are planned strategically throughout the facility, which will shrink from eight buildings to two.

“This is going to be a modern campus and also a very safe one,” Winters said. “God forbid this ever happen again, but if it does, I want parents to know their sons and daughters are safe.”

A small history museum will be added to commemorate more than four decades of educating students. The bricks and mortar may change, but the mission stays the same: “We prepare people to succeed through quality career and technical education programs and services.”

New Campus

The 2.6-mile behemoth destroyed all nine buildings on the campus. The school’s Business and Industry Services operations moved back to the campus in September 2013. A district administration building is expected to re-open next summer, and the main building should be complete by fall 2016.

Rest From the Storm

A sense of new normalcy has returned at Canadian Valley. El Reno’s Business and Industry Services operations moved back to the campus in September 2013. A district administration building is expected to re-open next summer, and the main building should be complete by fall 2016.

Rest was hard to come by in mid-crisis days after the tornado. Winters scratched his head wondering why he was waking up at 3:23 a.m. every day.

While sharing the school’s response at a statewide CareerTech superintendent’s meeting, he found the answer to his question and his restlessness.

“Curtis Shoemaker is campus director at Indian Capital Technology Center and a dear friend,” Winters said. He shared with me an app on his cell phone from the Bible. Colossians 3:23 reads, ‘Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.’ I don’t mean to preach, but that verse brought me comfort, and I began sleeping through the night again.

“I look back at all we’ve done to get past this awful disaster. I am so proud of the work our staff has done to get school open. Many things happened just right for us. A lot of people are to thank.”

Bradley gives a great deal of credit to the success of this achievement to the diversified leadership group.

Lutts agrees.

“Much work still lies ahead,” she said. “With all employees promoting a positive spirit and providing solutions on a daily basis we will continue to move forward and be Canadian Valley Strong ”

By Bill Kramer, Communications and Marketing Coordinator
Canadian Valley Technology Center’s El Reno Campus

*Canadian Valley Tech Center-Update-Watch Oklahoma Horizon TV Video Report


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