Shaw Marks One Year Anniversary of Tornado
April 17, 2012 – Days after a tornado tore through the Shaw University campus and damaged 27 buildings, admissions officers from other colleges started calling Jeffrey Smith, the school’s vice president of administration and student affairs.
“No one thought the school would reopen in the fall,” Smith said. “Schools all over the country we’re telling me, ‘We will take your students.’ ”
But the historically black campus in downtown Raleigh defied those expectations. Despite damage to virtually every building on campus, the school opened to new and returning students in the fall.
On Monday, exactly one year after the tornado, the private college’s students, faculty and administrators commemorated its reopening with a day of music, speeches and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopened Willie E. Gary Student Center, the building that suffered the worst damage.
“We worked very hard to get to this day,” university President Dorothy C. Yancy said just before the ribbon-cutting, as a band struck up the rhythm and blues classic “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”
“Isn’t this beautiful?” Dr. George Debnam, the school’s retired physician, said to no one in particular during a tour of the student center. Debnam, who arrived on campus as a 15-year-old freshman in 1944 and whose name is now on the school's administrative building, Debnam Hall, echoed the sentiments of administrators and students when he said the campus is in better condition now than before the storm.
Debnam, who served as Shaw’s campus physician from 1962 until 2001, said many of the buildings were built in the mid-1960s and in need of restoration. “Your car, your house, yourself – everything changes after 50 years,” he said.
The students point to the newly tiled bathrooms, new walls and the refurbished kitchen in the student center. But Smith, who oversaw the restoration, pointed out the things casual observers cannot see, such as the electrical wiring and plumbing.
“It’s better than it was. Every wall you see in here is new,” Smith said, standing on the second floor of the student center. “But we still have some quirks. The air conditioning isn’t on yet, but we expect it to be by the end of the week.”
The tornado that hit Shaw on April 16, 2011, touched down just southwest of downtown and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses as it cut its way to Northeast Raleigh, where it killed three children at a mobile home park.
Shaw students escaped injury, but six buildings on campus, including the student center, three dormitories and the gymnasium had roofs partially or completely destroyed by the storm.
Shaunta-mae Alexander, a sophomore mass communications major, was asleep in her ninth-floor dorm room at the Dimple Newsome Residence Hall when she was awakened by a noise. Alexander got out of bed and was about to look outside when she realized her bedroom window was shaking. Alexander, now 22, ran out of the room.
“As soon as I got out of my room I heard the glass shatter,” she said.
The hall was dark, with people running back and forth throughout the building. Alexander, a native of Sacramento, Calif., helped another student who had collapsed on the floor make it out of the building. When she got outside, shattered glass from windows littered the ground and trees were toppled over. The roof on the student center was gone.
“It was my first time seeing anything like that. We don’t get tornadoes in California, we get earthquakes,” Alexander said. “It was horrific.”
Campus officials said the costs for repairs totaled $3.7 million. The dorm where Alexander lived and the Fleming-Kee Residence Hall both needed about $1.5 million in repairs.
Shaw closed for the remainder of the semester and opted not to hold summer sessions. Smith said the repair work did not begin in earnest until mid-summer, but there was never a time when he thought the school would not reopen in the fall.
Yancy said Smith “worked like a Trojan” to help restore the damaged buildings.
Smith on Monday said his father died March 28, 2011, less three weeks before the tornado.
“I put every moment I would have spent grieving into restoring this place,” he said. “It didn’t matter what anyone said. I knew we were going to be ready.”
This story was written by Thomasi McDonald and originally published in the News and Observer on Tuesday, April 17, 2012.