As Castlewood school decides what's next, Johnson vows to fight for FEMA funding

Kerry Kulkarni
Watertown Public Opinion
Castlewood Superintendent Peter Books and Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., discuss the Castlewood School District's plans as a disaster restoration crew works nearby.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., visited the Castlewood school Wednesday to assess damage and speak with staff about their experiences, challenges and plans for the upcoming school year.

“When I was a kid, our house got struck by lightning. Even though we weren’t displaced from our house for very long, it’s amazing how that jarring violence can stay with you,” Johnson said.

As he toured the school, a disaster restoration crew worked inside disheveled classrooms and hallways to finish mitigation of the building. As that process continues, the district is still waiting to know how it should proceed next fall.

The school and other buildings in town were badly damaged by a May 12 tornado.

“It is a lot of waiting for us,” said Superintendent Peter Books. “We don’t know if we will be able to use our school buses yet. The whole bus barn just fell onto them.”

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Half of the school building has been deemed structurally sound, and district officials hope students can return to that part of the school in fall. However, with the lunchroom and elementary wings heavily damaged, there are challenges ahead.

“It’s so much square footage. These are big spaces that were hit,” Johnson said.

Books said the school could consolidate some classrooms, but the commons and kitchen being out of service is a concern. Bringing in portable classroom pods and setting up a temporary kitchen could be a solution, but nothing is certain, he said.

“We need to figure out what square footage we will need. Because it’s summer, it seems like we have time, but we really don’t,” Books said.

The old gymnasium sustained the heaviest damage, but the storm also damaged the music room. That's a loss that the district is feeling.

“We have a big band. There are over 60 kids in our band,” said Principal Angela Keszler.

Roughly 20 Castlewood homes damaged

About 20 homes in Castlewood were also damaged by the storm.

“Three of those homes have already come down. The others are waiting on insurance,” said Mayor Brian Ries.

Getting materials and contractors into town is proving an issue for the residents of Castlewood. Ries, whose garage was damaged, said he was told by several contractors that they would not be available all summer.

Despite the cleanup efforts throughout much of the town, some Castlewood homes remain heavily damaged or in rubble.

“It’s going to be a long process to find people to repair your home,” he said.

The Castlewood Recovery Fund has been created to assist households and businesses within the school district that suffered losses. Ries said the fund currently has $100,000 available for long- and short-term needs. Residents should dial 211 to apply.

Johnson believes FEMA will help

Johnson believes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will make money available to the school for repairs and rebuilding.

“I think the federal government will have to help with this,” he said. “If FEMA doesn’t give you the right answer, we will fight for you.”

FEMA is expected to assess the damage in Castlewood on Monday.

Mental health being addressed 

Johnson asked about the general well-being of the community. The mental health of students was a significant concern for the Castlewood district even before the storm. Now, staff is keeping close tabs on the students as many of them deal with their homes sustaining heavy damage. Some students have even been displaced from their homes.

More:Castlewood Strong! Class of 2022 perseveres after tornado left school in rubble

“The night of the tornado, we had a lot of kids outside crying,” Keszler said. “But they all seemed in good spirits during our mental health checks.”

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., discusses the damage to the Castlewood School gymnasium with Superintendent Peter Books.

After the storm hit, the district saw near-perfect attendance, despite classes needing to be moved to area churches, she said.

“They showed up and all had stories to tell. It was important for them to have the opportunity to share their experiences with each other,” Keszler said.