WADENA — A yellow tennis ball plopped into the dirt next to the thick wall of a safe room being constructed as part of the new Wadena-Deer Creek Public School.
The voices of students at the new tennis courts next to the school mingled with the sound of construction equipment and light-hearted banter as crews put up exterior brick on the new school.
It is slated for completion in August with an open house planned Aug. 29 before the fall session welcomes the first students who will graduate from the new school.
Those students have already weathered the all-too-real storm and its aftermath. On June 17, 2010, an EF4 tornado, the second-strongest on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, ripped a path of destruction across Wadena. The multi-vortex tornado, 1.1 miles wide at its peak, struck a mortal blow on the Wadena-Deer Creek High School that sheltered students since 1965. In its last effort, the school sheltered school employees and graduates there for the weekend’s festivities of the all-school reunion.
Constructing a new school would take two years. But by the end of summer, the wait will be over.
Bruce Boyne, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representative for Wadena-Deer Creek Schools, said the progress on the school’s construction has been amazing. Boyne’s wife was one of the school district’s staff who was saved inside the building when the tornado struck. Their battered truck was the one pictured on its side next to the school after the tornado.
Ground was broken for the new $38 million school in May of 2010. It will house grades five through 12. The school serves Bluffton, Deer Creek and Wadena.
Progress on construction appears extensive with windows in place, brick going up on exterior walls and Sheetrock nearly complete inside the building. Painting and tiling of the interior walls is already well along. Landscaping with curbing and paving of parking areas is expected to be completed in a month or so.
“It will be here before we know it,” said Virginia Dahlstrom, school superintendent.
Boyne said the progress has been remarkable with construction efforts benefiting from a dry fall, mild winter and early spring. The school will have expected amenities in a new building, smartboards and WiFi and a design aimed at bringing in light and air and be energy efficient with geothermal heat. But it will also have something other schools don’t — a safe room designed specifically to protect its occupants from a tornado’s devastating winds. (see related attachments, left-hand column, this article for floor plan and architect's drawing)
“The safe room is the first one being built in a six-state area through FEMA, the first one that is being part of a school,” Boyne said. The school district pursued a FEMA grant for the safe room at the suggestion of Gill Hirte from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The 6,547-square-foot safe room is designed to withstand the winds of an EF5 tornado, up to 250 mph. The safe room will hold 1,100 people allowing it to harbor members of the community, as well as 670 students and staff from the building.
Designed to serve a multi-purpose, the safe room will serve as an additional gymnasium and be available for community events. In the event of severe weather, the Wadena County Sheriff’s staff will unlock the safe room and turn on its interior and exterior lights electronically from the sheriff’s office so the safe room will be available to the community no matter the hour or day or time of year.
The school is receiving $950,000 in FEMA funding for the safe room’s construction. The school’s portion of the cost is $317,000.
Dahlstrom said the safe room provides shelter and peace of mind. It’s a community where such peace was shattered as about 20 city blocks were wiped out in southwest and northwest Wadena. It took less than 20 minutes for the tornado to cut a path of destruction on its 10-mile path.
“A number of our kids, when we have a tornado drill, they are just traumatized,” Dahlstrom said. “It’ll be a safe space.”
The new school will also have terrazo floors, tiled walls and a walking track around the gyms along with the latest technology such as three-dimensional labs.
With the school’s completion, the hope is more students from the area will choose to stay in the district and perhaps others will be enticed to enroll. For the community, the school’s construction is a solid sign of recovery after the storm. Turning onto Colfax Avenue from the city’s main street is remarkable for the view of the brick-sided school in the distance where a vacant lot stood not long ago. Scars from the tornado remain. But now the new school is a sign of a fresh start.
“It’s a great project,” Dahlstrom said. “We are moving forward and I can’t wait until Aug. 29.”
RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.