It took the National Weather Service (NWS) until around noon Tuesday to make the call that Lincoln County had been struck by a tornado, but for those who saw the narrow path of damage running for more than eight miles across the county there was little doubt. Of course, the NWS has to rely on a scientific analysis of radar data and debris patterns to make their call, but Lincoln County High School (LCHS) Principal Tim Godbey got to see the storm in person as it ripped through the complex housing the high school, middle school and 6th Grade Center.
“I pulled in around 6:45 and it wasn’t raining so I picked up my bag and got out of my truck. I took one step and could see rain and debris heading straight for me so I jumped back in as the truck started shaking,” he said. As the tornado struck, Godbey thought his vehicle was being hit by hail, but he soon realized it was the rear window of his truck breaking. “At one point, the truck was shaking so violently I thought, ‘I have to run for it,’ but as soon as I opened the door you could hear the wind and I decided to drive right up to school,” Godbey said. Godbey came out of the adventure unscathed and was happy everyone else did as well. “We had students out there on buses and I am very glad that we had no injury to students, faculty, staff or visitors,” he said.
The tornado appears to have touched down just before 7 a.m. on the north side of Brock Dr. at the Stanford city limits. The first real damage occurred when a garage at 580 Brock Dr. was demolished and the resultant debris blown in a straight line across Brock Dr./Boneyville Rd. and into a pasture. Standing where the garage once stood, you could see the debris pointed in a straight line towards the school complex on US 27.
Before the tornado struck the school complex, it ripped a roof off of a barn on the Baughman farm, toppled power lines and trees and damaged the US 27 branch of PBK Bank before hitting the schools. Lincoln County Middle School (LCMS), sitting between LCHS and the 6th Grade Center, appears to have taken the brunt of the storm. A steel portico that shelters the entrance to the building was lifted from its pillars, and two large sections of roof that cover a walkway between LCMS and the 6th Grade Center were torn free. One lay near the walkway, but the other ended up a hundred yards away, behind LCMS.
Where the debris ended up is important to weather scientists trying to determine whether a storm just carried strong winds or was, in fact, a tornado.
Joe Sullivan, Weather Warning Coordinator for the NWS Louisville office, carefully mapped where debris started and ended as he toured the damaged school complex Tuesday morning with Lincoln County Emergency Manager Donnie Gilliam. Using a GPS, Sullivan plotted each large piece of debris.
“We’re looking for rotation that indicates cyclonic rotation associated with tornadic activity,” Sullivan told a handful of LCMS students who were given the chance to walk along with Sullivan and NWS Forecaster Erin Rau. Sullivan explained to the students that if the storm was just comprised of a strong wind, most of the debris would be pushed along the path of the wind, but if it was a tornado, most of the debris would be to the left of the path of the storm.
When Sullivan saw the damage to the front of the middle school, he estimated that the wind had to be moving around 100 miles per hour when it passed through the county, but he appeared doubtful that it was a tornado. “Could have been a microburst,” he said. But as the tour continued, Sullivan’s assessment began to lean toward a tornado.
The group trooped about a quarter of mile, plotting debris as they went, to the remains of a barn behind the school complex used to store athletic gear. Sullivan pointed to the broken posts that had supported the barn and said to Rau, “Those were 6X6’s.” The debris from the barn was spilled into an adjoining pasture for several hundred yards.
It wasn’t until the NWS team toured the damaged athletic fields that it became clear that it was a tornado that passed through. Jon Smith, an LCMS teacher accompanying the students, told Sullivan where the goal posts, bleachers and other pieces of athletic equipment strewn across the fields had been before the storm struck. By the time he’d completed plotting the damage, it appeared that Sullivan had been convinced that the county had suffered a tornado strike, but it wasn’t until he’d toured the rest of the county and viewed the radar data that he made the call.
LCMS suffered the most damage in the storm, with a broken window, antennas torn apart and several holes in the roof over the cafeteria. When the storm struck Monday, food service workers were already working on lunch, but the rains that followed the tornado poured into the cafeteria.
Troy Gingrass, Deputy Emergency Manager, said “Water was running out of the light switches and pouring through the lights so the call was made to evacuate the school.” The LCMS students were evacuated to the LCHS gymnasium and their partially prepared lunchtime meal was brought to the high school where a combined effort between the two staffs served 700 more meals than normal. Shortly thereafter, the decision was made to close school early, and by 1 p.m. all students in the district were sent home. By Tuesday, however, structural and electrical engineers had determined that it was safe for LCMS to reopen.
In addition to the damage that LCMS sustained, the 6th Grade Center had a large ventilation cover blown off, and a shed used to store material and equipment for the Area Technical Center was demolished. A quarter of the roof of the bus barn was blown off and several buses were damaged. On the athletic fields, concession stands and a baseball dugout also suffered heavy damage.
Acting District Superintendent Karen Hatter said that insurance adjustors would be on scene Wednesday to survey the damage. District Finance Officer Gwen Rubado said that repairing the tornado damage should only cost the district $2,000. Rubado explained that the district has a $1,000 deductible for its insurance policy, and that the carrier, Ohio Casualty, would treat the damage to all of the buildings and athletic fields as one event and the damage to the buses as another. “Ohio Casualty has been very positive; they can even offer advance checks on the claim to begin the repairs.”
Damage from the tornado didn’t stop at the schools. The Elder family on Old US 150 lost a brand new cinder block garage. Roxanne Elder said her husband, Bo, was just finishing up some interior painting before the garage was destroyed.
The NWS report of the event says that the final path of the storm was 8.2 miles long, and lifted off the ground two miles northwest of Crab Orchard.
A complete description of the storm can be found at the NWS website at www.crh.noaa.gov/news/display_cmsstory.php?wfo=lmk&storyid=64658&source=0