CV Tech’s El Reno Campus Re-Opens

Gov. Mary Fallin joins CV Tech adminstrators and board of education members for the ribbon cutting on Tuesday during the school's grand reopening of the El Reno Campus.

January 10, 2017

EL RENO – Weather lingo is second nature to Oklahomans. Many can identify a hook echo on a radar before learning to drive.

Outflow and inflow. Updrafts and downdrafts. These terms cause folks to shift their attention upward each spring as the clouds darken.

Canadian Valley Technology Superintendent Dr. Greg Winters admits to keeping one eye on the sky often during his 40-plus years in education.

Nothing properly prepared him for the fateful Friday evening of May 31, 2013.

“Everybody was watching the weather that day,” Winters said. “Forecasters were saying all week that the conditions were ripe for severe storms.”

Just like they were 11 days earlier in Moore.

An outbreak of long-track tornadoes left a swath of destruction in the south OKC metro. Two-dozen people lost their lives, including seven schoolchildren at Plaza Towers Elementary as a massive twister carved a horrific path of destruction before school was dismissed that day.

All too often in tornado alley, school hallways are the only designated safe areas. The sad reality is that storm shelters designed to protect hundreds cost millions.

Fast forward a week and a half. A busy calendar caused Winters to miss eating lunch at school. Instead, he drove three miles west to a convenience store.

“I bought me a diet Dr. Pepper and some peanuts,” he said. “That’s what you did where I grew up in Mangum, Oklahoma. You open up the bottle of pop and pour your peanuts inside. As you drink the pop, you eat the peanuts too. And that’s your meal.”

Winters admits being drawn to the parking lot, which was littered with storm-chasing vehicles. He walked over for a weather update and explained his status as a school administrator who is entrusted with the safety of several hundred students.

“I asked if they knew where the storms were going to be,” he said. “They told me the ingredients were in place for a tornado in that immediate area, and they encouraged me to go back to the school and send everybody home.”

An intense super cell (characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone) produced a tornado southwest of El Reno at 6:03 p.m., according to information supplied by the National Weather Service. The exceptionally wide tornado followed a complex path, initially moving to the southeast at between 20 and 25 mph.

The storm expanded in size, and the tornado turned to a more eastwardly direction as it passed the El Reno Municipal Airport. Its speed increased to between 30 and 40 mph.

At 6:19 p.m., the tornado crossed U.S. Highway 81 and continued intensifying.

Power was lost at 6:20 p.m. at Canadian Valley Technology Center, as evidenced by electric clocks that stopped at this time.

At 6:26 p.m., the National Weather Service accounts state that the storm reached its maximum size of 2.6 miles wide, with surface winds approaching 295 mph.

At this point, the storm made a turn northeast and slowed significantly.

At roughly 6:35 p.m., the tornado crossed Interstate 40 and engulfed the OKC West Stockyards. Shortly thereafter, it crossed State Highway 66 and wreaked havoc on Canadian Valley’s El Reno Campus. All nine buildings on campus were destroyed.

The tornado dissipated at 6:42 p.m.

Another killer tornado had struck central Oklahoma. Eight people died, all inside vehicles. Among the dead on roadways was the three-man TWISTEX storm research team headed by world-renowned engineer and scientist Tim Samaras. Nobody was injured at CV Tech’s campus.

It was dark by the time Winters weaved his way past road debris and floodwaters to reach Canadian Valley’s El Reno Campus.

He could see well enough with a flashlight to realize the damage was massive. Interior walls constructed with concrete blocks were sucked out of the main building. Cars were strewn throughout the parking lot, many on their sides or upside down.  

Winters’ first interview was about 10 o’clock the night of the tornado, with ABC News. He vowed to the viewing world that no matter what it took, no employees would lose their job, and school starts August 15.

In times of crisis, a calming presence helps. Winters never wavered.

Over the next several days, Winters gave dozens more interviews.

“I was interviewed by the New York Times and even the South Korean News,” Winters said. “I would venture to guess that I’m the only person from Greer County who has been interviewed by the New York Times.”

 Meanwhile, Winters presented two of his closest lieutenants with a huge task. Assistant Superintendent Bill Bradley and now Deputy Superintendent Director Gayla Lutts had to find a place to have school so Winters’ promise was not broken.

Operations were relocated to the nearby Cowan Campus south of Yukon. Full-time summer staff were placed in hallways and break areas so critical services could be restored quickly.

Administrators met early each day and again late in the afternoon to discuss developments.

Right away, a temporary location was found for the school’s childcare center. Church of Christ-South Yukon opened its brand new children’s wing to the school for as long as the need existed, free of charge.  

Aviation Maintenance Technology, a year-round, full-time program for adult students seeking Airframe and Power Plant (or A&P) certifications, was temporarily moved to the Francis Tuttle Campus in Oklahoma City.

It seemed at every turn, things were falling into place.

“There is no doubt that we had divine intervention at work,” Lutts said.

Lutts had just attended the funeral for her 40-year-old cousin, Shannon Quick, who died as the Moore tornado ripped through the mid-section of her home.

“It took no time for me to realize that all we lost in El Reno were buildings,” Lutts said. “This was bricks and mortar. Nobody lost their life. We are so fortunate the El Reno tornado didn’t happen earlier in the day when we would have placed students in hallways that were no longer there after the tornado hit.”

In the meantime, a former car dealership building was identified as the new home for 15 full-time programs, faculty and staff. The former John Holt Chevrolet was a casualty of the government restructure in 2009 after General Motors declared bankruptcy.

Holt’s loss became a saving grace for Canadian Valley. For the past 1,300 days, that facility has served as the Holt Campus. A lease agreement allowed school to open. That campus ceases to exist in a matter of weeks as the fully reconstructed El Reno Campus officially reopens to students on January 5.  

Winters has another vow.

“We have the safest school of its kind in the country in terms of storm preparedness,” he said. “I know people are on both sides of the safe room issue as it pertains to schools, but I will not build another building without one.”

School architects are currently working on a plan that will add a safe room soon at the Cowan Campus. At Winters’ insistence, a FEMA-approved safe room was constructed as part of a 2015 expansion project at Canadian Valley’s Chickasha Campus.

Students returned to the campus for the first time on Thursday, the first day after the winter break. What they saw was unfamiliar to them but somewhat familiar to staff.

Square footage did not increase with the reconstructed campus, which was rebuilt mostly on the same footprint of the former main building. In fact, nearly $4 million of infrastructure was salvaged from the wreckage.

Concrete foundations were reused, along with some concrete support columns and even portions of concrete roof decks that have been deemed safe by engineers. Winters believes taxpayers deserved cost savings whenever possible.

“The cost savings actually doubles when you factor in that we would have left $4 million behind only to rebuild it elsewhere,” Winters said. “So in reality, we are saving about $8 million.”

Nevertheless, area taxpayers responded favorably when asked to commit $12 million in general obligation bond funds as a gap between the insurance reimbursement and the actual cost of rebuilding.

“We will be eternally grateful for our area patrons all across the district that helped us by passing the bond issue in April 2015,” he said. “Nobody ever expects to lose an entire campus.

“You prepare for losing a building perhaps. But we had nine buildings, and we lost virtually everything. We were fully insured, but there are so many things that were not covered.”

Sprinklers, for instance. Much of the El Reno Campus was constructed in the late 1960s before sprinkler systems were required. They were included in most but not all of the former buildings.

Road reconstruction also is not covered. Winters said school administrators re-routed bus routes on the campus so that students never have to walk where buses cross.

A revamped seminar center sits on the west end of the campus. The room can be split into three sections and features the latest audio and video capabilities. Area non-profit groups can use the facility free of charge. Winters insists that the school not charge district patrons to use a building for which they have already paid.

Landscaping, and, of course, safe rooms were not covered either by insurance funds. But Winters insists the campus be attractive and that it be as safe as he can make it. In fact, the contrary would be as uncomfortable as a rear flank downdraft – a weather term for a dry air which wraps around the back of a mesocyclone in a super cell thunderstorm.