Hamilton County Schools Director of Facilities Justin Witt said it's the worst damage to a school he's ever seen.
Witt and other school officials walked the perimeter of East Brainerd Elementary on Goodwin Road in Chattanooga Monday morning, surveying the havoc that severe storms wreaked on the school the night before.
Fire alarms and sirens wailed in the distance, water ran from damaged gutters and a set of metal blinds clinked together hauntingly in the breeze.
Scattered in the grass, just outside of what was once one of the school's playgrounds, were colored pencils — bright against the bleak scene, like Easter eggs.
At least two people are dead in Hamilton County after powerful storms struck the Chattanooga region overnight leaving a path of damage miles long from tornadoes and strong winds.
The storm seemed to travel a path through East Chattanooga, Ooltewah, Collegedale and Cleveland, with a large swath of devastation in East Brainerd and the neighborhoods around East Brainerd Elementary.
School district officials were scrambling Monday morning to find alternative student meal sites and reschedule bus deliveries that have been bringing days worth of food to students since schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
East Brainerd Elementary had been one of those sites, as well as Wolftever Elementary School in Ooltewah, which was closed because the school was inaccessible Monday.
"We had some sites set up at East Brainerd and Wolftever, today we obviously postponed the site at East Brainerd and will have to figure out another alternative to get food there, and we'll figure that out in the next 24 hours," said Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. "We have crews out this morning clearing trees outside Wolftever to get things accessible."
Johnson said getting student meal deliveries up and running and ensuring students and their families are safe is the district's biggest priority.
"As far as this tragedy, we are thinking about our families and our students and employees and the community at large and are really trying to ensure that they are taken care of and their needs are met," Johnson said. "I know we have employees who have lost their entire homes, I'm sure we have families who have lost their entire homes."
SCHOOL BOARD MEETINGS POSTPONED
The Hamilton County Board of Education postponed meetings scheduled for Monday, April 13 and Thursday, April 16 due to Sunday night’s storms.
The board’s budget work session has been rescheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Monday, April 20 and the board’s regular monthly meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 23. Both meetings occur remotely and be live-streamed on the district’s YouTube and Facebook pages.
Representatives from the Tennessee Risk Management Trust, the district's insurer, were already evaluating East Brainerd Elementary on Monday morning, as families walked through neighborhoods gawking at the damage and National Weather Service officials visited Hamilton, Bradley and Marion counties to confirm the extent of the storm.
Several inches of standing water covered the school's gym, which is now roof-less, and pieces of the bus loop awning were twisted around nearby trees.
Anslee Eastmead, a third grader, walked through the school's parking lot with her family and their dog, Dolly.
"It's really sad," Anslee said.
She had been counting down the days she could finally return to school, her mom said. Anslee has been participating in distance learning at home like most students across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The disruption to distance learning, given widespread power outages, isn't Johnson's top priority.
"We are trying to get through this moment, and we will continue to reassess going forward. The No. 1 thing on our minds is the safety of our children and our communities," he said.
Now without power at her house, Anslee and her family said all they had to do was survey the damage.
"We didn't realize how bad it was going to be," said Scott Eastmead, Anslee's dad. "Last night, they said there would be some storms, but nothing like this."
District officials are encouraging families to stay off the roads and stay home to allow for emergency responders to get to those who need help and clear debris and downed power lines.
Ooltewah Middle School sustained damage to its roof due to the storms and Soddy Elementary has experienced some flooding related to Sunday night's storm.
Hamilton County Schools will continue to operate at least nine student meal pick-up sites on Wednesday and will continue to re-evaluate as roads become more accessible. Breakfast and lunch will be served to any child aged 18 or younger between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The sites include: Brown Academy, East Lake Elementary, East Side Elementary, Hixson Elementary, Orchard Knob Elementary, Red Bank Elementary, Soddy Elementary, Spring Creek Elementary and Wallace A. Smith Elementary.
Other community partners also continue to provide student meals while schools are closed. Click here for a complete list of student meal locations and delivery schedules in the Chattanooga region.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
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