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Will Comfrey Save Its Tornado-Damaged School?
By Mark Steil
April 3, 1998
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As the cleanup in Comfrey continues, teachers and students are struggling with how to complete the school year. Comfrey's K-12 building was heavily damaged by the March 29 twister. The plan is to move school to a building in the town of Sanborn. Books, computers, lab equipment, and other materials will be transferred, and it's hoped classes can resume April 13. But the long-term outlook for the school is not so certain.

THE SCHOOL ON THE WEST SIDE OF TOWN was among the first buildings to feel the mile wide tornado's 200 mile per hour winds.

A blue tarp covering a hole in the roof of a house across the street from the school flaps in the wind as staff and volunteers survey school damage and begin the cleanup. Bricks litter the grounds; tarpaper from the roof is sprinkled around the playground slides and swings. Inside the building, Comfrey superintendent Bob Meyer stands in the dark hallway of a ruined school.

Meyer: I'm looking into the gym, and I can see blue sky in the ceiling, so it looks like there's a section about 60 by 10 that's completely torn off. And as you look on the floor, we've had bad weather the last couple of days, so we've got a lot of water on the floor.
The tornado also destroyed the library and a computer room. Three school buses were destroyed. Down the hallway from the superintendent, staff and volunteers sort through classroom material getting ready for the move to Sanborn.
Unidentified worker: Should I put this in mine?
The school will basically move into a building in Sanborn, some twenty miles northwest of Comfrey. The Sanborn building was last used a year ago for elementary grades. The walls of the Comfrey school are still standing, and Superintendent Meyer says there's a chance parts of the complex can be repaired. He says the elementary school, though, will have to be torn down. Enrollment averages about 15 students per class, kindergarten through twelfth grade. Many schools that size have merged with neighboring schools. The town has been through debates in the past whether to take that course. Meyer says the tornado revives that debate, but says the plan is to find a way to keep the school in town.
Meyer: The school board is very committed to keeping the building open, and the community is very committed to keeping a school in Comfrey. And that's the reason why a school this size can keep on, I believe.
In the church basement of St. Paul's Catholic Church, some high school students sit at a table. This room is the command post/lunch room/meeting hall for the town's recovery. Comfrey senior Nicole Hillesheim watches cleanup crews, national guard troops, state legislators, even the governor, walk through. She says it's too bad it took a tornado to bring everyone to town:
Hillesheim: Used to go places and nobody knew where Comfrey was, now it's everywhere. It's on the map. Everyone knows the small town of Comfrey.
The high-schoolers here say spring is a big time in their lives. Prom, graduation, good-byes. Now all that's been disrupted. Shelly Marx says the way everyone has pitched in to clean up is inspiring. She says the determination pouring out of this room will help the school survive.
Marx: It doesn't matter really where we go after this to me as long as we stick together. I think it's real good that they're trying to keep us all together in our normal classes with our regular teachers in a different building. I think that's really important. The building has a lot of memories inside of it, but it's not the building that what matters, it's the people.
The damaged school has left a big hole in the town's economic future. The Comfrey mayor says some businesses and homeowners are waiting to see what happens to the school before they make their decision whether to rebuild. Comfrey resident Verson Peterson says the school decision will be the key moment in the town's recovery.
Peterson: Our town is getting smaller all the time, you know. We've lost about 200 people in the last 15 years. So it's - we've got to have everything we can keep here, you know. If we lose the school, I don't have too much hope for the town.
The cost of rebuilding the school could be several million dollars. Insurance will pay part of the cost and there may be federal disaster dollars available. Even with that, there still may be a substantial part of the final bill for the school district to pay. Les Amsden wonders if Comfrey residents and area farmers can afford it.
Amsden: I want the school here, don't get me wrong on that. I don't like to lose it. But can a community this size with the trouble we got now afford to spend a lot of money? It's going to take a lot of money to fix that school up. So I don't know what the answer is.
That answer is probably weeks or months away. It won't be long before crews take everything usable out of the wrecked school and clean up as much debris as possible. Then the school board and residents will begin the process of deciding whether they can afford to keep a school in Comfrey.