RINGGOLD, Ga. -- Fourteen-year-olds Riley Tucker and Elissa Chandler have more to worry about than average eighth-grade girls.
Every day when they turn down Tiger Trail to be dropped off at school, they see the remnants of a twister that wrecked their town a year ago. They miss friends who had to move away when their houses were destroyed. They wonder if it could happen again.
"You can't really get away from it," said Riley.
Towering reminders of the devastation from April 27, 2011, sit between the windows of the high school and middle school, where backhoes scrape away dirt and crews prepare to pour concrete on a new eighth-grade wing at the middle school. The $5.3 million rebuild is one of the town's biggest tornado-recovery projects in size and cost.
The project is expected to be completed by December, in time for next year's eighth-graders to spend a few final months at their intended school. But it will be a year of changes. Eighth-graders will start their year at Ringgold High School, then shift to the newly rebuilt middle school, then return to the high school as freshmen.
When the effort is complete, Catoosa County Schools will have spent nearly $40 million to repair or purchase new buses, athletic facilities and school buildings damaged or destroyed by the twister. Ringgold's football field has been replaced and modernized fast-food restaurants have long since rebuilt along Alabama Highway.
Students and town residents hope the completed school finally will help life get back to normal. Maybe.
"I think the closure from the tornado will be when those eighth-graders are back in their school. I think that's what the community is waiting for," said Damon Raines, Catoosa County Schools director of operations.
Elissa was huddled in her basement with the rest of the family on April 27 when her mom got a text that the high school and middle school had been hit. Elissa cried when her mom read the message.
Most of her life was in the middle school. All her friends went there. She didn't know what would happen or where she would go when it was wrecked.
Principal Mike Scholl wondered the same thing.
Several days after the tornado hit, Scholl was walking through the building while rain fell. Water poured through holes in the roof and flooded the floor.
"That's when I got concerned we wouldn't make it back [the next year]," he said.
But students returned to school much faster than some expected. The Federal Emergency Management Agency brought in Belfor, a federal cleanup crew that specializes in disaster, to work around the clock and clean up both schools. Buildings were repaired except the eighth-grade wing, which had to be abandoned and rebuilt.
By Sept. 7, most students headed back to classes at their schools, while the eighth-graders took classes at the high school.
Eight-graders, who were supposed to be the upperclassmen at the middle school, clutched their bags as they headed to high school a year early. The students were isolated from the high schoolers and had different lunch schedules. A guard stood at the double doors of the wing to keep older kids from coming in, one eighth-grader remembers.
"We were going to be the big kids this year and now we're at the bottom of the food chain," said eighth-grader Hunter Foskey.
The high school had been under capacity since the opening of Heritage High, so there was enough room at the high school to house the 250 displaced eighth-graders. But school officials felt the fallen halls of the middle school should be rebuilt and those students should be returned to their familiar school.
So work began in February with plans of completion in less than a year -- a lofty goal for such a large project. Raines expects work to finish up by Dec. 15, and so far the project is a few days ahead of schedule.
Plans call for a 40,000-square-foot addition of 22 classrooms.
"That's enough to cover what we had as well as give us room for expansion in the future," Raines said.
When work is complete, middle school students will have their own band hall and chorus room and won't have to share the fields with high schoolers. There might even be enough room for new vocational classrooms.
Students such as 12-year-old Bailey Farrow are looking forward to a normal year with middle school football games. Athletes are anxious to practice on their own fields.
The return to normal life is important for many Ringgold students who had to face death before they were old enough to drive.
"They had to grow up a little quicker than most eighth-graders," said middle school teacher Eric Schexnaildre.
If construction finishes on time, Bailey will go spend three years at the middle school. And as much as the school's completion will normalize life in Ringgold, even the 12-year-old wonders if the townspeople can ever put the storm fully behind them.
"I don't think they'll ever forget it," she said, "but it won't be as hard."
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...