HACKLEBURG, Ala. — Every morning since the beginning of the year, Hackleburg High School senior Wynn Knowles woke up thinking about his graduation. He already had a rough draft of his salutatorian speech in his head.
Exactly one month before the biggest day of his life, he was helping his mom address invitations for graduation when one of the most powerful tornadoes Mother Nature can summon plowed through his town, destroying his home, his father's church and his school in a few ugly minutes last Wednesday.
"Graduation and college are still going to be there. But they have moved way down the priority list," Knowles said.
The tornadoes that raked Alabama last month heavily damaged 18 schools across the state, according to the Education Department. Some like Hackleburg's elementary and high school and three schools in Tuscaloosa are total losses. People in other small towns like Plainview and Phil Campbell are holding their breath hoping the centers of their small communities can be repaired.
Soon enough, school officials will decide what to do about the final four weeks of the school year. But for now Hackleburg, a town of about 1,500 which lost more than two dozen people along with its fire department, police station, main employer and only grocery store too, is rallying around one of its most precious things, the school where about 550 of its children learn.
Dozens of students, teachers, administrators and friends streamed to the unrecognizable buildings Saturday after being given permission to go inside and try to salvage what they could. Books, gym equipment and desks and chairs sat outside, pulled from the jumble of insulation, ceiling materials, posters and school papers that Wednesday's tornado turned each classroom into.
"Want me to be honest with you?" asked Hackleburg High junior Adam Sutherland when asked how he is coping as he helped sort through what remained of the choir room and athletic building.
"This sucks. I don't want to go to another school. I want to stay in town. This is home. If you know anything about Hackleburg, we are a big family," Sutherland said.
The tornado struck right around 3 p.m., just as the elementary school would have been dismissing. But the superintendent canceled school that day because of the threat of severe weather. It's a decision reading coordinator Donna Palmer said saved lives.
She pointed to the hallway outside the kindergarten and first grade classrooms filled with cinder blocks and other debris.
Palmer was carefully picking through a friend's classroom Saturday, salvaging as many books and other supplies as she could. Alabama already lags behind plenty of other states in per pupil spending and the recent economic downturn has tightened budgets even more.
"We know how hard it is to come by so we're afraid we're not going to get it back," Palmer said.
Hackleburg residents love their school. The water tower within view of the school celebrates a 2007 baseball state title. Sports brings the town together, just like Hackleburg's destroyed Piggly Wiggly or the leveled Wrangler clothing plant where many of its residents work.
"We have to rebuild for the heart of this community," elementary school principal Joan Baker said.
Wynn Knowles' sister Brianne thinks deciding to rebuild the school will go a long way toward ending the nightmares that have plagued her and her friends since the storms.
"We've already lost so much. We don't want to lose the school forever too," she said.
About 10 miles up the road in Phil Campbell, the high school had some windows blown out and a wing destroyed. Eighth-grader Allison Byrd worried her clarinet was gone forever as the band room was leveled. But the instrument was found undamaged, still in its case, several hundred yards away.
She has spent her days after the storm helping her father clean up his uncle-in-law's barber shop. She is anxious to get back to normal, especially since power has been out since the tornado, making the days spent at home long and tedious.
"I want to go back to school. I know that sounds strange, but it's really boring at my house," she said. "I can't see any of my friends."
Her fifth-grade cousin Collin Richardson agrees for his own reasons.
"I don't want to be going to school all summer," he said.