Road to Recovery: After tornado tears through Bayard, student CERT team helps clear a path to relief

Road to Recovery: After tornado tears through Bayard, student CERT team helps clear a path to relief

By Tyler Dahlgren

The Storm

First, there was chaos.

On the night of June 12th, a tornado tore through the Western Nebraska town of Bayard, uprooting trees and ripping roofs right off of buildings.

The storm sent the small town’s citizens scattering for cover. It destroyed family homes and took out power lines. It was a nightmare, leaving behind disarray, debris and damage.

First, there was chaos, but just as vividly, RyAnne Blau remembers the silence.

“We didn’t realize how many trees we had until they were gone,” said Blau, who lives across from the Chimney Rock Villa nursing home, which lost part of its roof. “It tore up the cemetery. It tore up the house right next to us. It was chaos, and then there was silence.”

Tom Perlinski lives out in the country, and his home doesn’t have a basement, so he took off for Bridgeport, out of the tornado's path. After it had passed, he sent repeated calls and texts to his superintendent and the elementary principal, but cell service was down. Concerns grew along the way home.

“Arriving in town was a big shock, with all of the trees down and just the damage that had been done,” Perlinski said. “We stopped in town and helped with what we could right away, and then we went home. The house wasn’t damaged, so we returned to town and helped with the recovery that night.”

The long journey to recovery had just begun.

Fortunately, in Bayard, that road had already been paved.

The Town

Like a lot of communities in the area, Bayard is a town in what superintendent Dr. Travis Miller calls “transition.”

“There’s historical roots to agriculture, and a lot pride in the pioneering spirit that exemplifies Nebraska,” Miller, who has been in his current role for seven years, said. “Our families have strong work ethics and conservative values.”

In the mid-1990s, the sugar factory in Bayard closed, wiping out numerous jobs and, eventually, triggering the end of other businesses in town. There’s still a grocery store, an auto parts store, a couple of gas stations and a newspaper.

“We’re blessed to have them,” Miller said. “A lot of the other businesses we would have had 25 years ago in our community are no longer there, and that’s what you see all over rural America.”

Bayard has a rich tradition in the Platte River Valley, of migrant laborers going back many generations, one that has led to multi-generational Hispanic and multi-generational Caucasian families settling in the area.

“We have a nice diversity, and really great community continuity, as well,” Miller said.

So when the tornado had made its loud exit, claiming its final utility pole and smashing its last window, the residents of Bayard didn’t stand in stunned silence for very long.

Neighbors needed help.

Nursing home residents needed shelter.

A community in crisis needed to come together, and the first thing Region 21 Emergency Manager Ron Leal noticed upon arriving in Bayard was how quickly its citizens were able to do just that.

“From the moment I arrived on scene, which was probably 20 minutes after the tornado struck, the community was united in a way that you wouldn’t believe,” Leal, who serves five counties and is stationed in Sidney, said. “Everybody was there to help right away.”

And for the next week, that’s where the people of Bayard would be.

A Unique Resource

When Miller came on board, student safety and security sat high on his list of priorities.

The year before he arrived, the community and district made a collective decision that a school resource officer was needed. After a year or two, Bayard began using consultation services from Safteyline Consultants, whose owner, Bob Hessler, also served as the Scottsbluff County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) coordinator.

“He helped us with hazard mitigation steps and with analyzing our safety plan,” Miller said. “During one of our conversations, he said ‘I have an idea. I don’t know how you’ll feel about it, but what do you think about having a student CERT team?’”

Miller did some research and discovered the program was sanctioned by the Department of Homeland Security. He approached Bayard’s Board of Education, who supported the initiative from the start.

“We decided to move forward with planning to have the first school-based teen CERT team in the state of Nebraska,” Miller said. “We couldn’t have done any of it without our board. They were insistent that we make our schools a safe and healthy place to work.”

In times of crisis prior to the 2013-14 school year, Miller and other administrators and staff noticed students displaying natural leadership, whether it was keeping the hallways clear, guiding ambulance responders to where they needed to go, or holding doors open when need be.

“We already had students who stepped into leadership roles in a time of crisis without any formal training,” Miller said. “By the time these kids are sophomores, they start to be in positions to make adult decisions. Kids turn 16 in their sophomore year. They start driving. We thought about the possibility of students coming up on a wreck as drivers, or being in a wreck, and the idea of first-aid training seemed really important to us.”

The Bayard CERT team was developed, its first class a large group of sophomores in the fall of 2013. Over time, as the years passed, half of Bayard’s 7-12 population had received training in response to emergencies. Like the one that happened on June 12.

“Ironically, some simulations that we had done as a part of their training was if a tornado had struck the school grounds,” Miller said. “We had gone through that as a possibility.”

Before the tornado, the Home Depot in Scottsbluff had donated five-gallon buckets to the school’s CERT team, who, as a part of their training, stocked the buckets full of emergency supplies-flashlights, blankets, bandages and high-visibility vests.

All would come in handy over the next week.

“The morning after there was a meeting at the fire department, a group of leaders came together to plan the response,” Perlinski, who helps with CERT training year after year, said. “One of the ladies that does the training for CERT was there, and she asked if we could assemble what CERT team we could to help with going door to door and checking on families.”

Communication lines had become extremely difficult to navigate, so Perlinski wasn’t expecting more than five or six students to show up. But if there’s one thing to never underestimate, it’s the power of a teenager and their iPhone. Five or six suddenly became considerably more.

“By the end of the second day, we had WiFi in certain places, so we sent a group message out to all student CERT team members, and started planning from there,” Blau recalls. “A lot of the kids were dealing with their own houses, but as soon as they were able to come help, that’s what they did.”

Student CERT members were assigned to teams, and together checked on every residence in the town of Bayard, then proceeded to spearhead clean-up efforts at the tree limb-littered golf course.

Miller had his hands full at the school, which provided temporary shelter to 45 nursing home residence forced into relocation, but the way Bayard students rose to the aid of the community makes him proud even seven months later.

“I wish I could have seen them,” Miller said. “I kind of get a lump in my throat just thinking about how proud I am of them. We knew they were in good hands with the emergency responders.”

Leal is invited by instructors to Bayard for the final CERT exercises and has been through three graduating classes. Last spring, he brought one his coordinators along, who couldn’t believe how well the teen CERT members followed orders and the consistency with which they worked.

“The kids are just incredible,” Leal said. “Having that junior CERT team there, it was just another resource in our tool belt. We didn’t have to send city employees to help with the clean-up. Everybody could just do their job, and they came in and really did an excellent job in relief.”

At one point, Perlinski remembers seeing teams on both sides of the street, knocking on doors, clearing debris, moving tree limbs and providing comfort to their community-a community in dire need of just that.

“In all small towns, the school is a big part of the community,” Perlinski said. “Housing residents from the retirement home wasn’t even debated. Our building still had power. Our building was still safe. We took whoever we needed to.”
Schools are a reflection of their community. The character of Bayard’s students shined through an otherwise dark week, Miller said, a direct reflection of the town’s parents and teachers, and the job they’ve done in helping to raise them.

“We know that our students are capable of being excellent leaders, not only today, but in the future, so we want to do everything we can to provide them with opportunities, knowledge and practice in that leadership,” Miller said. “There’s a whole lot more to what we do in education than what shows up in a test score.”

The Scribe

The daughter of a town councilman, Blau found herself at the fire hall the night of the tornado. She noticed much of what was happening wasn’t being reported due to the lack of communication outlets, and asked Leal if he needed help documenting the relief.

“Turns out, he did need help, and I ended up following him and Amanda Stricker, who was coordinating rural fire departments that were helping out,” said Blau, who, in addition to golf, FFA, Quiz Bowl, Speech, One-Act, Student Council and NHS, had just added “Scribe” to her list of involvement in Bayard.

All of the information gathered by Blau was included in the disaster declaration and recovery process that helps the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) assess decisions made during the relief.

“We are just incredibly proud of RyAnne and the way she stepped into a very important role in the time of crisis,” said Miller. “She is a very conscientious and thoughtful student leader.”

The student CERT team gained a palpable sense of community through the tornado relief efforts, Blau adds.

“We learned we would have to work as a team if we wanted to succeed in these types of situations,” Blau, who plans to pursue mechanical engineering after graduation, said. “The community bound together to make sure everybody was located, before the emergency manager had gotten there and before the CERT team was assembled. The response was immediate and extremely impressive.”

Leal left impressed, too.

“The support of the city of Bayard was really phenomenal,” he said. “The schools were really, really good to work with. The first night, when the nursing home was damaged, they were right there saying ‘We still have power for the moment, you can bring the residents over here until we can get them placed in different homes.’ The entire community was involved.”

Blau had the opportunity to attend eight different schools growing up, but has been a student in Bayard’s for five years. It’s by far her favorite.

“The teachers, the principal, the superintendent, they all care that you succeed,” she said. “They make sure that you are thriving in the situation you are in.”

Even when those situations bring forth unprecedented adversity.

“You can’t walk into a school where you have more teachers and students that care for each other,” Perlinski said.

He felt it on the night of June 12th, when he returned to town and tried to navigate his way to the school.

“The tornado just quantified that,” he continued. “It’s not just a school thing. It’s a community thing, and it’s great to be a part of such a caring and cohesive group.”

The tornado's aftermath made it difficult for Perlinski to maneuver the town’s streets that night, but the people of Bayard were there.

Together, they cleared a path.


They Said It!

“It is an honor for us as a school to be entrusted with the care of our youth, and we take that very serious.”-Dr. Travis Miller

“I coach youth baseball, and this is a side story but I thought it was a beautiful thing. We were supposed to play a team from Scottsbluff, and their coach called me up and said ‘Hey, instead of playing that game, how about our team comes down and helps clean something up?’ Both of our teams showed up in uniform and cleaned up the golf course together. There were lots of acts of selflessness that really made a difference in our community.”-Dr. Travis Miller

“I have to really give a shout out to Heidi Manion, the girls basketball coach at Alliance. She brought her team to Bayard and they helped with the clean-up. Gordon-Rushville sent a check to our school from one of their staff funds, and that money went to our kindergarten teacher and some of our families that lost everything. They were right there making a difference for us.”-Dr. Travis Miller

“After the tornado, after everything kind of died down, everybody kind of walked out of their houses and looked around, almost in shock. We all went to our neighbors’ houses to make sure everything was okay. We called as much as we could.”-Senior RyAnne Blau

“As soon as we got back in town, people were already mobilizing themselves. As we tried coming through town, people were moving trees out of the way so that we could make it to the school.”-Principal Tom Perlinski