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Tornado recovery continues in Castlewood

The stage in the gymnasium of Castlewood's school. The roof of the gym had been destroyed by the tornado, the same night a scheduled dress rehearsal was to be held.
C.J. Keene
The stage in the gymnasium of Castlewood's school. The roof of the gym had been destroyed by the tornado, the same night a scheduled dress rehearsal was to be held.

Siding and shingles are reappearing on homes as life gradually returns to a new normal, but Castlewood’s school took the biggest hit from the tornado.

Superintendent Peter Books said one unexpected benefit of the storm is the addition of more space for the school.

“We purchased the three lots south of the school," Books said. "When we’re done rebuilding, it will definitely be a positive. It’s just been an interesting journey, and it will continue to be.”

Books said the recovery process continues day by day.

“Today I feel a lot better than I did May 13th," Books said. "[We were] extremely overwhelmed, and really unsure of our direction at the time. We knew even though it was mid-May there was time, but that time went very fast.”

Books said they were prepared for the start of the school year just a couple months later, because people pulled together. That includes local churches that provided some temporary space for classrooms.

“A number of community members volunteered and helped us out with lunches and serving lunches in the churches," Books said. "And of course, the two churches volunteering their space for the three months. Even when we moved out of the churches, we had a few community members help us move out and into the modular units. Community effort and the school board has been extremely supportive.”

Large, portable classrooms are in place now, complete with a mobile kitchen. Books says he expects reconstruction to formally begin in the spring of 2023.

Dan Haug is a fourth-grade teacher whose original classroom was in a part of the school torn apart by the storm.

“May 12th threw us a little bit of adversity, and in life you’re going to have adversity," Haug said. "It just so happened that ours was in the form of an F2.”

Now Haug teaches in a heated, air-conditioned, and Wi-Fi enabled portable classroom with everything a teacher or student could need.

“The churches were a little different space; we were all at tables and elbow-to-elbow," Haug said. "Now we’re just very thankful to be here. To be at desks, to have our own space, to enjoy the classroom experience. This town, these kids, everybody here is resilient. And it shows.”

That resilience can be seen firsthand in the “Castlewood Strong” signs on display across the city.

LeeAnne Dufek publishes the local paper and is a leading voice in volunteer efforts for the school district. She said the signs reflect the community’s attitude.

“The message has been Castlewood strong all along and just come back bigger and better.”

Dufek said everyone is part of the recovery effort.

“The meals were transported to the churches by someone else, and I would go back and collect the empty containers," Dufek said. "They were planning on having to do the transports from the schools to the churches, and just being a business owner in town I figured I’d maybe have the flexibility to help out with that. I wanted to get them back to normal – or as normal as they could be – as soon as possible.”

The tornado hit town during the final two weeks of the school year. Music teacher and theater director Vicki Bjerke said students were in the building rehearsing their year-end production shortly before the tornado hit.

“We found out there were 100 mile-an-hour winds in Huron, and by grace of God my student director called me and said, ‘Mrs. Bjerke where are you, we want to start dress rehearsal’ and I said take the kids out of there and go home," Bjerke said. "We just very luckily were able to clear the building. Our cast would have been on the stage which was the center of the damage.”

The roof over the stage was destroyed, and the interior was completely exposed to the storm.

Bjerke said while there were no serious injuries, trauma from the storm remains.

“When there’s bad weather coming, or even not - if it’s a windy cloudy day - some of them will ask you if there’s going to be a storm coming," Bjerke said. "One of the kids wrote on the board Merry Christmas and did a scribble line underneath it, and one of the little kids said, ‘how come they drew a tornado on the board?’ They’re really worried about tornadoes, some of the little kids.”

Despite the gym being at the center of the storm’s destruction, Bjerke said the nearby music room was largely untouched. She says students were able to return to the room and retrieve their instruments just days later.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture
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