Natural disasters are big news. Television presents live images of the devastation and the faces and voices of the victims of hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes and other catastrophes. Newspapers follow with detailed accounts of property damage, injuries and death tolls.

Cleanup and early recovery efforts usually receive media attention, but they quickly fade from the headlines. For disaster victims, however, the story is far from over-recovery and rebuilding is long term and lasts long past the attention span of the national press.

No one knows that better than Roy Baker, superintendent of Norris School District, just south of Lincoln, Neb.

The 2003-04 school term ended on Friday, May 21. As Baker looked out his office window that afternoon, he saw a beautiful, 160-acre campus. More than 300 trees and shrubs offered varied shades of green. All was quiet after the departure of the school's 1,700 students, ranging from kindergartners to high school seniors.

The following night, the school was struck by one of a series of tornadoes that raged across Nebraska. Tornadoes are classified according to the Fujita Scale, which is based on damage. The scale ranges from F0 to F5, with F5 causing the most damage.

The storm that hit Norris School became known as the Hallam tornado, named for the small community 10 miles to the west. Hallam was virtually obliterated by an F4 tornado during the outbreak (winds from 207 to 260 mph and capable of devastating damage)-142 of its 150 homes and businesses were destroyed or seriously damaged. In Nebraska, 27 funnels were reported that night. The only fatality, 73-year-old Elaine Focken, lived in Hallam.

The Norris school was hit just as hard. “The whole complex was devastated,” said Baker. “We always considered it an advantage to have grade, middle and high schools concentrated on one campus. But in this instance it wasn't-every building was hit. Every square inch of every building suffered water damage.”

In Lincoln, the management of Commonwealth Electric Co. of the Midwest (CECM) knew that areas struck by the storms would require immediate assistance and the company's Lincoln facilities were near some of the hardest-hit areas. In the past, CECM had completed projects for Norris Public Power, the electrical provider for much of the area, including Hallam and Firth, the town nearest the Norris school complex. Norris School District is a service account for CECM. The company had installed lighting on the school's softball field.

“Not knowing the severity of damage, we tried calling, but the telephone service was out,” said Nick Cole, manager of construction services, “We contacted Sampson Construction in Lincoln, a large general contractor that we thought might be involved in the emergency. We said CECM was ready to help however we were needed.”

Cole went to the school soon after the storm.

“Driving south from Lincoln, everything looked normal,” Cole said. “Then, about a half mile from the school, you saw this swath marking the path the tornado took. Everything [was] swept away, trees uprooted, drives leading to where homes had been now were gone. It was chilling.”

By the end of the week, a dozen CECM electricians were on-site evaluating damage and planning the most logical approach to ensure the electrical safety of the severely damaged facilities and making preliminary plans for rebuilding its electrical systems. Ultimately, the company was awarded the contract for both storm mediation and construction phases of restoring the school's electrical, information transport and related systems. Commonwealth's client was a consortium made up of general contractor, Sampson Construction, the Norris School District, its insurance carrier, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“Because of the nature of the emergency, there wasn't time to go through the normal bidding process,” said Cole. “It was obvious from the outset that a very large and well-trained work force would be needed, and we could provide that and the experience and capabilities required to complete the project in a timely manner.”

Cole said most of the walls of the school's buildings were standing, but many roofs and walls had collapsed in the elementary and middle school gymnasiums, sports concessions and press boxes, bus barn, greenhouse, kitchen, cafeteria areas, and auto and wood shops.

“Windows were out and even where the roof was structurally intact, roof surfaces were heavily damaged or gone entirely, causing water damage throughout every structure,” Cole said. “Even in the center part of the high school, walls looked as if they had been sprayed with seaweed-the force of the wind was that strong. Steel girders shook so violently, upper portions of concrete block walls were cracked. Mechanical equipment that had been on roofs was now in hallways, classrooms and other areas. There were mazes of twisted steel and conduit raceways.”

After confirming that all areas were electrically safe to enter, the next task was to identify any electrical equipment and wiring that could be salvaged and reused.

“As soon as we could get power restored to the line side of the main service disconnects, we began electrically and visually inspecting each and every breaker, feeder, branch circuit and systems circuit to verify the electrical integrity of the wiring that remained after the storm,” said Cole. “With safety and compliance with National Electrical Code requirements paramount, we literally worked our way from the main service disconnects through each and every circuit, clear to the final device to verify electrical integrity and to establish what could be reused.”

Working through the debris, representatives of the insurance company, CECM, the mechanical contractor, engineers, school officials and others determined what could be saved. The process took about a week. Removal of the wreckage came next.

“After circuits were safe, the demolition contractor came in,” Cole said. Debris was removed so work could begin. Books and other items were removed and cataloged, salvaging everything possible.

Damaged walls, ceilings, carpets and other debris were cleared. Areas that should be given priority were addressed with engineers and architects, and working drawings were produced. With staff from the Lincoln engineering firm, Olsson Associates, CECM assisted in the design and preparation of working drawings for the school's new electrical, fire alarm and intercom/paging systems. CECM completely engineered and designed new information transport systems (ITS). A state-of-the-art voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) system also would be installed.

Cole said every effort was made to salvage as much as possible, but most light fixtures and about 90 percent of the electrical -system were replaced, including service entrances, feeders, switchboards, panelboards, transformers, disconnect switches, motor and branch circuit wiring, fire alarm systems, intercom/paging equipment, HVAC controls, and parking lot and sports lighting.

During the peak of construction, CECM was tracking 33 separate projects. The number of electricians on the project varied, but at one point in mid-summer, the number reached 95. Through one 11-week period, crews worked 70-hour work-weeks. By December 2004, more than 65,000 hours had been logged.

Electrical work is on track to be completed in late spring, almost one year after the tornado struck. Cole estimates by that time approximately 75,000 hours will have been devoted to electrical and ITS work.

The CECM management team consisted of Cole, responsible for the electrical systems rebuild, and Todd Havlat, Lincoln manager of Commonwealth Communications, in charge of ITS, security, CCTV and HVAC control work.

Three of CECM's top people supervised on-site crews. Greg Derks, project general foreman, and Larry Lahman, Testing Division manager, supervised the storm mediation and construction phases. Gerald VanAmerongen, technical services general foreman, led 10 workers who installed ITS security, CCTV, clock, intercom/paging and HVAC controls.

From the school's perspective, reconstruction has proceeded slowly but smoothly, said Baker. Work was intense throughout the summer to accomplish as much as possible before the next school term. However, there was far too much to do to have facilities ready for fall classes, and 12 portable buildings, each with two classrooms, were positioned on the campus.

“The school year proceeded, and we met key construction completion target dates,” Baker said. “Students and staff adapted very well. There have been no critical issues. Construction crews have worked efficiently; Commonwealth Electric came in with a large workforce that helped speed construction.”

By the Christmas break, the middle school classrooms and kitchen, high school vocal music, foreign language, 3-D art and home economics rooms were in use. Work on the bus barn and track are complete. Leases on the portable structures expired Jan. 31 and all but two were removed.

Although school activities are settling into a familiar routine, evidence of the storm is everywhere. The once-wooded campus is starkly bare by the loss of 80 percent of its trees and shrubbery. Many of the renovated buildings have new, modern appearances and the two temporary classrooms are visible reminders of what school was like during the previous term.

Throughout construction, cooperation has been a key to completing the project.

“With all the different contractors and trades involved, often working in close proximity with one another, and with school staff and pupils, and numerous volunteer workers on-site, everyone had to work together,” said Cole.

The school district still must deal with costs, which are an estimated $35 million.

“Insurance and grants will not cover all of the costs, and we do not yet know how much funding we will receive from FEMA,” said Baker. “We took the opportunity to make some improvements during the rebuilding, enlarging areas some where walls were down, adding safe rooms for protection in case of future storms, and those costs are not covered by insurance.

“The insurance limit for Code-required upgrades has been exceeded, and those costs are the school's responsibility. Our cash reserves will, no doubt, be quite depleted by the end of this project,” Baker added.

Donations are helping.

“We can recount literally hundreds of stories of generosity,” said Baker. “Businesses set out jars for donations, neighboring schools have raised funds to help us.”

Lincoln's IBEW Local 265, whose on-site members worked on the school, sponsored a lunch, did the cooking themselves and donated proceeds to the school.

“A positive result of disasters is that they bring out the goodness in people,” said Cole. “Put most people in a situation where other people need help, and they want to do everything possible to help. The good things people do for others is a positive lesson for life.” EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.