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After the tornadoes: Rebuilding a campus, piece by piece

Officials at Union University in Tennessee scour buildings for possessions, clean up debris – and plan for providing an education on a campus splintered by a tornado.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2008

A notebook in a dorm room at the Baptist-based school reflects the kind of faith the college may need to rebuild after its third tornado in 10 years.

Carmen K. Sisson

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Jackson, Tenn.

It's a cold, blustery morning here in western Tennessee, the sun high and bright, the sky a preternatural robin's-egg blue. The kind of halcyon day reserved for picture postcards. The kind of perfect day depicted in glossy campus brochures.

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An entrance sign to Union University blinks a cheerful welcome: "Get to know Union." Just beyond, less than 1,000 feet away, lies a cruel irony – Union's heart and soul laid bare, the lives of its students revealed in rainbow-hued paper and clothing clinging to winter-bare trees.

Nearly a week has passed since last Tuesday's storm system ripped through the mid-South, leaving a deadly trail of destruction across five states, including Tennessee, where the Baptist-based liberal arts school took a direct hit from an EF-4 tornado with winds topping 200 m.p.h. In awed voices, students run through the numbers and count God's blessings: 3,200 students, 1,200 on campus when it struck, 13 trapped, 51 injured – no fatalities. The buildings can be replaced, and many will have to be – 40 percent of the dorms were destroyed and 32 of the 33 buildings dotting the 290-acre campus sustained an estimated $47 million in damage.

It's the third time in less than a decade tornadoes have left Union picking up the pieces and trying to move forward. But the air is light today as students gather in the sunny yellow rooms of the Chi Omega house, now a makeshift command post. The shock is beginning to wear away, leaving an appreciation for life's smaller pleasures.

For Renée Jones, assistant director of recruitment, a mop is the best thing she's seen all week. "This is fabulous," she says, dumping bottled water on the muddy linoleum and swabbing it to a dull shine. So much of the campus was atomized by the tornado that it's impossible for students and volunteers to keep their shoes clean as they trudge back and forth, trying to salvage whatever they can from the destruction.

Ms. Jones says it's not about cleanliness but a deeper mission the faculty shares – providing calm and comfort amid chaos. While the university remains in "essentialist" mode, addressing fundamentals like housing and coursework, the staff slowly shifts from survival to caretaking, facing a new challenge – how to hold a campus community together when the campus is gone and the community is spread in hotels and homes across the city.

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David Dockery perches on the edge of a chair, elbows on knees, a red Union jacket warming his drawn face and tired eyes. He was on campus when the tornado struck around 7 p.m., meeting with two deans to discuss what's always on his mind – Union's future. Since he became president in 1995, Dr. Dockery has pushed an ambitious 25-year master plan. He stares at the floor as he admits the plan was almost halfway complete, with $60 million in renovations over the past decade. This tornado was "15 times" worse than the previous two, he says, made more cruel by its impact on the students' personal lives. Since then, his only thought has been how to give back what was taken – clothing, papers, a place to live, an education.

"I made as many decisions in the first 100 hours as I normally make in 100 days," he says, rubbing his eyes. He's slept only 16 hours in the past week. It's not only the tangibles keeping him awake – how to retrieve student valuables, resume classes, provide textbooks and computers and everything required to run a campus – it's also the intangibles.

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