By Katie Beth Williams
Special to The Newnan Times-Herald
The Thursday in late May arrived without any further hindrances. The weather almost seemed to reflect the shared sigh of relief from the city of Newnan, Georgia, a distinct antithesis to the conditions determined by the tornado two months before.
The turf was lined with chairs for the honorees, and a stage was centered at the front for the valedictorian, salutatorian and other speakers for the evening.
The bleachers at Drake Stadium were packed with anxious families and friends waiting for the ceremony to start and the graduating class to file in. May 27, 2021 was not expected to materialize as an in-person event at the high school’s stadium, and yet despite several obstacles that almost prevented this day from happening, the class of 2021 were handed their diplomas and announced the most recent graduates of Newnan High School.
Being located at 190 LaGrange St. for over 70 years has upheld the city-wide belief that Newnan High School is more than just a physical environment for learning five days a week; it’s a community that personifies the city of Newnan just like the historic downtown square or the beautiful homes of College Street. It’s because of this community mentality that the residents of Newnan, Georgia, were able to come together in the wake of calamity and help one another to restore the Newnan High School campus to a beloved cornerstone of the suburban city.
While the residents of Newnan were expecting severe storms throughout the night of March 25 leading into March 26, 2021, no one felt prepared for the degree of destruction that they would meet the following morning. Families including my own took to basements, hid under mattresses or found the safest possible corner to take cover as a tornado blew close to the heart of the historic downtown.
According to research from the National Weather Service, the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale, primarily used in North America, scores the severity and force of tornado winds on a scale from 0-5.
The tornado that came through the city around midnight was classified as one of the most powerful and dangerous, an EF-4. An article from the National Weather Service explained that this tornado tore through three different counties and was on the path to LaGrange Street as it reached its peak wind speed, hitting 170 mph at Smokey Road and Belk Road before making its way to the Newnan High School campus.
“When a problem is so big, it’s hard to know where to start.”
Uprooted trees blocking roadways, power lines broken in half, and tarp-covered roofs greeted locals the following morning, reflecting the sheer force of the roaring storm. Those that were able to cross the bridge into the main path of LaGrange Street saw firsthand the newly cracked buildings that now make up Newnan High School.
Not even a full day after the storm, residents of Newnan were restless, wanting to help the affected people of their community. As a senior involved in several programs at Newnan High School such as the Ambassadors as well as being the class of 2021 salutatorian, Sarah Dean felt this urgency and worked to help her community.
“When a problem is so big, it’s hard to know where to start,” Dean said. Later, she reiterated this frustration: “Sometimes you’re confronted with something you’ve never been confronted with before.”
Because of Dean’s close proximity to the affected area, connections to those around her and other students who were also anxious to help, she began sending out texts, letting people know when and where she would be helping, inviting others to join her in her cleaning efforts.
Back to school
Among the seriously devastated buildings, the field house was completely destroyed, and roofs of many buildings were torn off and in pieces. A year later, many buildings are still supported by large beams until they undergo rebuilding or refurbishment efforts. The historical main building at 190 LaGrange St. is not housing 9th-12th grade classrooms.
Due to severe and unavoidable damage to the two-story building, the structure that has been a landmark and symbol of the history of Newnan High School and all memories of graduates that have walked through those halls before will be demolished.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the #NewnanStrong mentality is clear as school board members have already announced the new building plans for NHS and the measures taken to ensure the 2021-22 school year continues in person and mostly on campus.
While the school is able to resume in person learning, it still doesn’t look like it did when times were “normal,” pre-pandemic and pre-tornado. The ninth grade building, which was largely unaffected by the EF-4, has been converted for 10th-12th grade classrooms and a cafeteria space, while ninth grade students and staff reside at the city’s Central Education Center, CEC. Many of the parking lots were renovated to house the “learning cottages,” temporary trailers for teachers’ classrooms and administrators’ offices.
One of the classrooms in the C “learning cottage” belongs to Jo Ellen Gordon, the school’s AP Calculus teacher who has worked at Newnan High School for the past 20 years. Despite being on the NHS staff for two decades, Mrs. Gordon hasn’t taught in an environment quite like this before.
“We see no one (in the mobile learning environment). If you don’t work at my building, I don’t see you ever. And that’s very isolating,” Gordon said.
The unconventional environment, while not ideal for high school learning, has made it possible for Newnan High School staff and students to return to campus. Coweta County Board of Education representative for District 5 and Vice-Chairman of the school board Andrew Copeland credits the ability for the school system to be able to return to in-person learning and adapt to what he and administrative staff call the “learning cottages” to the community of Newnan.
“We have a great community that really rallied around us,” Copeland said. “We have a great staff, we have great students. It’s gonna be a little bit of a journey to get us to the finish line, but I feel confident that we’ll get there as long as everybody continues to stick with us.”
When the EF-4 tornado struck the campus, destroying several buildings and causing many more to be rebuilt from the foundation up, this community sentiment became clear.
Despite the tragedy and damage done to the most well-known parts of the town, the people of Newnan and the high school community continue to persist and adapt to the aftermath of the tornado a year later.
While most of the historic campus will be renovated in the coming months, buildings are just brick on brick.
The community has a history and a purpose that won’t be demolished because of a tornado. Despite the damage, Newnan High School is a part of the city of Newnan and a representation of its unyielding fortitude.
Katie Beth Williams is a rising senior at the University of Georgia studying journalism with a minor in women’s studies. She was born and raised in Newnan, Georgia to Beth and Jeff Williams.