One tornado damaged four first-grade classrooms at Oakwood Elementary, and the other pulled the majority of the roof off the gym at Lyman Hall Elementary.
The National Weather Service confirmed Wednesday that two F1 tornadoes with winds up to 90 mph skipped along a half-mile in South Hall Tuesday afternoon.
According to the weather service, the first tornado touched down at 3:38 p.m. Tuesday approximately 1 mile southwest of Oakwood near Oakwood Elementary School.
The second tornado occurred at 3:45 p.m., about 2.5 miles southwest of downtown Gainesville near Lyman Hall Elementary School.
Moments after severe weather sirens sounded in South Hall, students at the schools were safely huddled in windowless rooms with concrete walls. Some were tucked against walls in conference rooms or classrooms, while others were sheltered in bathrooms at Lyman Hall without power.
Although 24 students were at Oakwood Elementary and 65 students were at Lyman Hall Elementary for the after-school YMCA program when the tornadoes tore through the area, and an additional 25 to 30 elementary school students from the nearby World Language Academy piled into Lyman Hall off a bus seeking shelter during the severe weather, no students were injured.
Gordon Higgins, spokesman for Hall County schools, said the community played a big role in keeping students safe Tuesday.
"The National Weather Service didn’t have a tornado warning in Hall County at the time," Higgins said. "That was really how the chain of alert got started — people in the community started calling (the schools)."
Pat Tilson, principal of Lyman Hall Elementary, said more than 60 staff members were at the school at about 3:45 p.m. Tuesday for a teacher training session when the tornado occurred.
"We had a lot of bodies to help with those children," Tilson said. "We were being watched over."
Karla Swafford, principal of Oakwood Elementary School, said students were safe due to the calm and quick actions of staff, central office personnel and local authorities. Swafford and Tilson said students at the schools performed flawlessly the severe weather drill they had rehearsed in previous school years.
"They knew exactly what to do, and they did it and were well-behaved," Swafford said. "The best thing to do is to have a plan and work it, and that’s what happened (yesterday)."
For the second time in two weeks, Hall County schools enacted emergency plans.
On Aug. 11, a gunman seen near Lula Elementary School forced the school into lockdown mode, in which all doors to the school were locked as Hall County sheriff’s deputies surrounded the East Hall school. A roughly two-hour standoff with the gunman ended with SWAT Team members fatally shooting the gunman. In that incident, Hall County educators praised the Hall County sheriff’s office and Hall County schools’ faculty, staff and students for their quick action.
Swafford and Tilson, who is in her first year as principal of Lyman Hall Elementary, said students at the two schools last practiced a severe weather drill in the spring. Swafford said schools are required to practice severe weather drills twice during the school year, fire drills multiple times during the school year and lockdown drills at least once during the first month of school.
Despite the classrooms littered with ceiling tiles and the damp, unusable gym at the schools, faculty picked up rulers and chalk and continued teaching Wednesday.
Swafford said four of the school’s five first-grade classrooms were damaged to the extent that 60 first-graders were relocated to alternative classrooms. The principal, who has a son in first grade at Oakwood Elementary, said it’s important for teachers to impart a sense of normalcy to the young students.
"Because we have a lot of co-teaching, we have a lot of other spaces in the building we can move children to for the short time we’re in repair mode," she said.
Swafford said she expects the school’s classrooms to be repaired within the next three to four weeks. Tilson said local authorities still are determining how long it will take and how much it will cost to repair Lyman Hall’s gym. The gym is temporarily covered with a blue tarp, but moisture continues to seep through the roof. Puddles of water still sat on the gym floor Wednesday.
Only Veronica Grizzle, an assistant principal at Lyman Hall, was injured Tuesday.
She slipped in the hallway as she helped soaking wet children get off buses and take cover inside the school. Tilson said Grizzle hit her head on the floor during the fall and was recovering from considerable bruising at home. Tilson said Grizzle was anxious to get back to work.
Tilson said she is very grateful to the Gainesville Fire Department located next to Lyman Hall Elementary School. The firefighters were first on the scene after the storm, and the station provided shelter to students after they were evacuated from the school.
They Lyman Hall principal also said Eddie Dale, the new head custodian at Lyman Hall, was instrumental in getting the nearly 30 children off a school bus en route from the World Language Academy as the tornado first started to bear down on the school.
Both Lyman Hall and Oakwood elementaries had gas leaks Tuesday, but authorities quickly shut off the gas at the schools and removed students and staff from the premises.
"We got a tremendous amount of support (Monday) and (Tuesday) to make sure everything went smoothly (Wednesday), and it did," Swafford said.