Webbers Falls School's damage 'devastating'

Webbers Falls School Superintendent Dixie Swearingen says she hopes the school can salvage some of its textbooks from flooding that swept through the school in late May.

WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. — "It's devastating," Hannah Shanks said as she threw flood-damaged textbooks into a dumpster. "It's hard enough to get them, let alone throw them away. It's devastating."

Yet, it was something Shanks had to do. Late May floods swept through Webbers Falls School, making library books and most textbooks too wet and moldy to read. The books — along with bookshelves, desks, chairs and other ruined supplies — overflow from a massive dumpster outside the school. Long tables with attached benches line up outside the cafeteria, also no longer useable.

Inside the school, walls are dotted with black mold. Wood basketball courts buckled like ocean waves. Slimy, smelly mud coats the floors.

Webbers Falls School's damage 'devastating'

Hannah Shanks stacks flood-damaged textbooks on a cart before hauling the books to a trash bin.

School Superintendent Dixie Swearingen wore rubber muck boots over her jeans as she walked through the school on Thursday. She said anything below the waterline must be trashed. The entire interior must be redone.

"It's going to have to be a total gut," she said. "We're going to have to gut everything."

Swearingen said school officials came on Sunday to flip all the breakers, "because we knew all our outlets have been compromised."

Soon came the arduous work of inspecting and cleaning up.

"All of our library books are destroyed," Swearingen said, adding that she hopes to salvage some language arts, government and elementary textbooks.

"They've been in there for a long time. We don't know how moist it is or whether they're going to mold after storage," Swearingen said. "We're going to store them in a building that doesn't have controlled air." 

Webbers Falls School's damage 'devastating'

Bobby Herriman of Buckhorn Volunteer Fire Department washes and dries the Webbers Falls gym lobby. Area fire departments have helped clean Webbers Falls School from flood damage and debris.

Flooding also destroyed district technology, Swearingen said.

"We had eight computer carts, which are gone," she said. "We lost around 100 iPads and probably 180 Chromebooks."

In the kitchen, flood waters pulled a walk-in freezer from the wall, Swearingen said.

Brenda Catron, Head Start advocate for Cherokee Nation, said everything in her area is gone.

"Mud everywhere," she said. "It's bad. It made me cry."

Swearingen said other districts have offered to send textbooks and desks. Gore Public Schools is storing frozen food in its freezer and offering its band room as temporary Webbers Falls offices.

Tahlequah Public Schools offered 10 portable buildings, featuring 20 classrooms along one hall, if Webbers Falls pays to move them, she said.

Webbers Falls School's damage 'devastating'

Books, shelves, desks and a classroom floor at Webbers Falls School show effects of being submerged in floodwaters for days.

"We just have to make sure we have space to put them," Swearingen said. "It costs around $6,800 to $6,900 to move them."

The district also is working with its insurance company, adjusters and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on settling costs.

Swearingen said her goal is to start school the day after Labor Day.

Meanwhile, teachers, school employees, townspeople, FFA groups and others are helping with cleanup. Hannah Shanks, who has grandchildren at Webbers Falls, helped other volunteers pack the "salvageable" books and send them to Warner Public Schools for storage.

Volunteer Fire Departments also have helped. They included Texanna, Tenkiller, Buckhorn, Warner, Webbers Falls and Shady Grove.

Some school treasures, including years of trophies, have been saved because they were placed up high, she said.

She said she took senior panels — photos of each Webber Falls High School graduate since the 1950s — and stored them at her house.

"I thought, if I get devastated, I've got to have some memories of Webbers Falls Schools," said Swearingen, who graduated from Webbers Falls in 1975. She said many people have texted her asking if the senior panels are safe.

Webbers Falls School's damage 'devastating'

Flood waters caused the Webbers Falls School basketball courts to warp like ocean waves.

Even with all the school damage, Swearingen sought to put things in perspective.

"This is important for the community," she said. "But, I have students who lost their home. My community supporters have lost business. The farmers have lost millions of dollars in damage."