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.
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The college had to cancel an annual conference for high school and middle school students, along with revenue-generating summer sports camps, a worship symposium, and a Valentine's Day banquet for west Tennessee pastors. The school's 62 clubs, from wrestling to Bible study, must get back up and running, offering small communities where students can feel a natural affinity and the healing balm of the Union spirit.Skip to next paragraph
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The basketball team is borrowing another school's gym – their own filled with bags of belongings salvaged from the rubble and neatly tagged. Dockery hopes to have the athletes playing at home by Feb. 21. And then there are things like driver's licenses, bank cards, and passports. Little pieces of plastic so necessary to function in daily life.
For a moment, Dockery seems bowed by the sheer enormity, then he squares his shoulders and a faint smile lights his eyes. There were no deaths, and that's something. A thousand people volunteered to help the very next day, and that's something, too. Union will rebuild what was destroyed and resume the master plan, more slowly perhaps, but always, always moving forward. "I don't think we've lost hope, and I don't think we're Pollyannaish," he says. "Our deep faith will carry us through."
At Duncan Hall, a girls' dorm, social work professor Kristie Holmes is on a mission of her own – salvaging something, anything, from each student's room. She's young, barely older than the students she teaches, and this is her first year as a professor. She doesn't have to be here today, or at least her job doesn't require it, but like the colleagues who dig alongside her, no other task is more important.
The wind whips her blond pigtails, chafing her cheeks as she dons leather work gloves. She pauses at a broken window and peers inside. Workers marked this room "done," condemning it and moving on, but they're men, she says. They only retrieved electronics. Women want other things – letters, teddy bears, diaries, "things I'd be really happy to see." She picks over mud-covered clothes and DVDs, rifles though drawers filled with cosmetics, and scans sagging bookshelves.
"One of the journals I found was really wet," she says, separating a pile of sodden greeting cards. "It started out saying, 'I don't know how I would have gotten through this day without this journal.' It's a reminder of where that girl's been, and it's important to get it back to her."
In some cases, the rooms were swept clean by the storm's fury, and she has to search harder. "Even if it's just an umbrella, at least that's something," she says, carefully bagging one.
Back at the Chi Omega house, accounting major Sherita Smith chatters happily as she clings to her mother, her mirth belying the terror she experienced as she and her roommates stepped from the bathroom where they'd taken shelter, only to find themselves outside, the rest of their apartment demolished. She's heard someone found her belongings and she's hoping two things were saved – a red and white stuffed monkey and a folder. She's an aspiring writer, and the slim binder is filled with poetry, short stories, and essays.
Her cellphone is gone, along with the phone numbers of her friends. The Commons building, where she used to watch movies on Saturday nights, is gone, too. Now, like her classmates, she just wants the scraps of paper that tell who she is and what she hopes to become.
It's a simple want, a basic need. But at Union University, where the familiar is now the hauntingly unfamiliar, it's everything. A symbol of hope. A marker of faith.