MOVING FORWARD: Tallulah Academy readies for new semester after tornado damage

Published 10:19 am Thursday, August 4, 2022

Tallulah Academy is preparing to start the new school year after a tornado caused severe damage to the high school building on March 30, leaving it unusable for school functions.

Betina Finlayson, Headmaster of the school, said she is excited about the progress that has been made.

“It’s all coming together, finally. It’s going to be a different school year,” she said. “But my kids, they’re the best. My faculty is awesome, and they all adjust. They’re willing to do whatever they can to make it work.”

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Finlayson said the school is currently on track to start classes on Aug. 17.

“(The students) are excited about being back,” she said.

The school is currently nearing completion of the temporary portable buildings that will be used for classrooms and administration offices. Five portables will house six classrooms and an administrative office.

Finlayson said that it is likely the temporary buildings will be used for at least two years.

The buildings were erected across the street from Tallulah Academy on a field owned by Parkview Baptist Church. The church has also been letting the school use its facilities. Its gymnasium has become a makeshift lunchroom.

Entergy workers were on site on Tuesday to connect the new buildings to the electrical grid.

Plumbing is expected to be hooked up to the municipal sewage system soon.

Finlayson showed off the new temporary school grounds. The buildings are arranged around an open, central common area.

“One of our dads is going to come in and build a covered walkway for us,” she said.

Finlayson accepted the headmaster position about three months before the tornado hit.

“I won’t know how (it feels) to have a normal school year as headmaster,” she said.

She had closed the school on the day of the tornado due to the possibility of severe weather. As a result, there were no injuries.

Peak winds were recorded at 150 mph. Side paneling and a large portion of the metal roof over the gymnasium were peeled off. Water damage was found throughout the high school portion of the structure. It was clear that the facility would not be useable for some time.

After the damage had been done, the community stepped up to help. Students, teachers, parents, other schools, churches and other community members all pitched in.

Mary Claude Glass is an English teacher and guidance counselor for the high school.

When she got word that the school had been hit, she and her husband drove to the academy as soon as the weather cleared.

“When we pulled up to the school, the parking lot was full,” Glass said. “I got out of the car, and I thought, ‘God, this is bad. This is bad.’ And we walked up to the door. One of my students came out of the front door of the school dripping wet. (They) said, ‘Miss Glass, we got everything out of your room we could.’

“It was the entire community; parents, grandparents, farm workers. Anybody that was not doing anything came. This was probably an hour, hour and a half (after the tornado hit),” she added.

Many people showed up with trailers to help salvage supplies, furniture, books, and computers. While still raining, items were rushed into nearby barns, sheds, cotton gins and any other available dry storage.

“At that point, we were so grateful just to be able to save whatever we could,” Glass said. “Because we knew the damage was major.”

Many individuals and organizations across the region have contributed to the school since the initial salvaging effort. The teachers made Amazon wishlists for supplies they would need for the new school year. Glass said that her wishlist had been almost entirely fulfilled the day after being posted.

Besides having to essentially build a temporary school from the ground up over the past four months, Tallulah Academy has also been involved in the complex process of assessing and dealing with the damage to the original building.

A partial demolition has already been performed. Hazardous debris and damaged structural elements have been removed.

“We’re waiting now on another engineering report to see what we can do,” Finlayson said.

It is not yet known if the structure will be repaired or will be a total loss.

“It’s a long process,” she said.

After the tornado left the building unusable, the Academy high school students needed somewhere to have classes. The First Baptist Church of Tallulah opened its doors to them, offering to let them use church facilities until the portable structures were in place.

Glass said she is grateful to the First Baptist Church for allowing the school to use the space, but she is looking forward to having classes in the new buildings.

“It was a little cozy in here, but we made it work. The kids were awesome. The parents were awesome,” she said.

The academy has held six functions at First Baptist. Annual school events like high school graduation, kindergarten graduation, a ring ceremony and an athletic banquet have all taken place there.

The school has endured many difficulties over the past four months. However, Finlayson said she maintains a positive outlook.

“I get upset. And I worry, but at the same time, I know God’s got it. And he’ll lead me in the right way,” she said. “And I’ve got great people to help me. That’s what counts: I’ve got great people.”