RINGGOLD, Ga. -- This morning, Anna Cashon will drive past the empty dirt lots scraped clean, the brand new gleaming houses and the silhouettes of framed buildings along Sparks Street into the newly paved Ringgold High School parking lot.
She'll see the bent frame of a goal post and an empty lot where the football field was. She'll pass piles of wood stacked where the eighth-grade wing to the middle school used to be.
She'll park her black 4Runner in the same spot she always has -- behind the school next to the band room. Giant letters on her back window spell out "Tex," painted in white with a heart to the right.
That homage to her friend and fellow student killed in the tornado is a reminder that -- try as everyone might to make everything seem normal again -- some things will never be the same.
As Anna and more than 1,000 other students walk into the school whose reconstruction was completed just days before the start of classes, they aren't just beginning a new academic year.
Today will mark the first time students have been back together at the high school and at Ringgold Middle School since an F4 tornado plowed through both schools on April 27. It will be the first time for many to see the reconstructed buildings, to get away from the downtown destruction and boarded-up homes that still dot the community and just be teenagers and students again.
The schools, like the students and the community, have been through a plague.
"Before everything happened it was [just] a high school," Anna said. "After the tornado you thought differently about everybody. There's a lot that is special about that school."
And while getting back into Ringgold Middle and High School in just four months can only be described by officials as a miracle, there will be challenges for students and teachers to overcome.
STORMS AND LOSS
At 8:45 the night the tornado hit, powerful winds ripped the roof off the high school. Most of the doors and windows blew off their hinges. Later it rained down sheets of water that mildewed and damaged many of the classrooms.
The deadly force picked up the band's three trailers and tossed them before bending the football stadium seats like ribbon.
The winds were less forgiving to the middle school, flattening the entire eighth-grade wing and ripping up much of the rest of the school before making a deadly hop over the ridge to Cherokee Valley.
In that valley, would-be Ringgold senior Chelsea Black was killed along with her entire family -- mom, dad, brother. And as the tornado sped north to Apison, Adam "Tex" Carroll -- another student who would have been a senior this year -- was killed in a trailer along with his cousin, grandmother and great-grandmother.
The losses hit the school community hard.
When Ringgold High Principal Sharon Vaughn first glimpsed the shell of a high school the day after the storms, she thought it would take a least a year to be back in the building.
But first officials had to find a place for students to finish out the spring semester. They ended up going to class in the afternoon at the schools' rivals Heritage High and Middle.
Then the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought in Belfor, a federal cleanup crew that specializes in disasters, which began around-the-clock cleanup. The school began quickly to transform.
First every desk, chair, pencil and loose item in the school had to be packed and sent to a warehouse. Anything damaged or ruined was tossed. By the time the school had been gutted, 16 Dumpsters had been filled with debris and ruined supplies.
Then came the rebuilding. Nearly every window and door had to be replaced. The roofs and walls rebuilt. The multiple gym floors ripped up and replaced. Field houses rebuilt. Every inch of the schools repainted.
"It's like finishing a new school," Vaughn said.
The high school was insured for nearly $17.5 million and the middle school for $17 million. The outer buildings including the field houses were insured for $2.1 million, according to the Catoosa County School System.
Insurance has been sending piecemeal checks for buildings as they are repaired, but officials are still working with adjusters for a total, said Damon Raines, Catoosa County Schools director of operations.
But insurance still won't scratch the surface for all the extracurricular events and sports a school is involved in, Vaughn said. This is where donations to the schools have helped.
After the destruction, the donations began to pour in.
Ringgold Chrysler Dodge Jeep gave $5,000 to outfit the cheerleaders. The Georgia Athletics Association gave a $3,000 check to their athletic programs. An Alabama garden club gave $1,200 to relandscape the school.
A $100,000 donation to the Ringgold High School Athletic Relief Fund came through the Community Foundation for a Greater Atlanta.
A nonprofit wrote a $130,000 check to pay for a redesign of the school's media center. Before the tornado, that was the shabbiest room in the school and now it's the most beautiful, Vaughn said.
And the donations go on and on.
With the community support the school didn't have to postpone any summer programs or cancel any fall sports, Vaughn said. And the students won't have to hold fundraisers in a devastated community.
Some sense of anticipation greets every new school year. That was especially true in Ringgold this year.
Students piled through the cafeteria lined with tables and stacks of sign-up sheets last Wednesday afternoon, faces beaming as they signed up for classes.
Some looked around with wide eyes. Hugged teachers. One young female student hugged a hallway wall.
"I miss this," she said.
Signing up for classes is different this time, said senior Levi Johnson. Everyone seems happier, more excited to see familiar faces.
Parents laughed; their kids wanted to go back to school.
"[My son's] ready to get back," said Julia Craig, a parent to a senior, who was helping out with registration.
Teachers agreed; they couldn't get students to leave. Some sneaked past the cafeteria to get a quick tour of their school.
"Let's go explore," Anna whispered to her friend Levi. The two darted for the stairs to see the media center; other friends joined the pair.
After roaming the halls, they ducked into their Spanish teacher Pat Long's classroom to hug her tight. Long's face lit up.
"I think everybody is excited to come back," Long said earlier in the week as she unpacked her classroom.
But one of the hardest things to cope with will be those two empty seats where Chelsea and Tex once sat, Long said. In her classroom, she can still see the desk where Chelsea used to sit along the back wall near the door.
"Students are going to want to talk about it," Long said.
Several teachers said they plan to allow time for students to just talk about the loss from the storm and how it affected their lives.
Teachers also have been instructed to watch for any signs of depression or abnormality and recommend a school counselor if needed.
But Vaughn said she doesn't plan to hold any type of school activity for Chelsea and Tex until later in the year.
"We thought it was in the best interest of [the] kids, to be very, very normal for a while," she said.
Since the summer break had to be extended until the morning after Labor Day to allow time for work on the schools, teachers will have only four days before the first set of tests begins, Vaughn said.
That means everyone will have to "hit the floor running," on the first day of school, Vaughn said. To adjust for a shorter year, classes were extended from 90 minutes to 99 and a previous 30-minute tutor period had to be cut out, she said.
The biggest challenge for teachers will be mixing up the classroom so that students don't get antsy or bored with longer classes, said Jenny Moeller, a high school economics teacher.
But teachers believe their students can adapt and be ready for a rapid testing schedule.
Students also may lose some of their pep rallies and other extracurricular activities because there is little time to spare.
Space is also an issue in the high school as nearly 250 eighth-graders will pile into the high school a year early this morning.
The eighth-grade wing of the middle school was the most heavily damaged area and the entire building had to be demolished. When it became obvious that the building couldn't be rebuilt in time for the school year, eighth-graderes were given a portion of the ninth-grade wing at the high school.
That means several high school classrooms were shuffled down the hall and some teachers will have to share rooms this year.
Officials anticipate it will take a year to finish the eighth-grade section of the middle school.
Middle School Principal Mike Sholl said the school will keep the eighth-graders as part of their school and mix as little as possible with high school students.
"They're our students; they're just in a different location," he said.
As students gather in preparation for the first bell at 10 a.m. today, Vaughn hopes the new buildings and all the brand new equipment and supplies will help the healing continue.
"They need to come in and see a new place that is fresh, not devastated, but normal," she said.
Levi gets that.
When he walked through the back doors from the band room, Levi said one of the first things he noticed was the fresh paint. It looked just like it used to with shades of cream and blue-gray.
He has become so accustomed to not seeing things in Ringgold as they once were that the sight was jarring at first.
"It was all just a shock seeing things get back to normal," he said.
As for Anna, when she steps through the double doors and heads off to her health class, she hopes the familiarity will help her heal.
"I'm ready," she said.
Reach staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.