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Pandemic reminds many at JSU of second anniversary of tornado

It was an eerily quiet Tuesday afternoon on Jacksonville State University’s campus.

Only a few students had gathered at the university’s Theron Montgomery Building. The quad was almost empty, save for a lone maintenance worker on a riding lawnmower. 

Only a handful of faculty and staff worked at their desks in Ramona Wood Hall, Ayers Hall and the Ernest Stone Performing Arts Center.

The quiet descended as a result of JSU officials’ decision last week to switch classes to online instruction and cancel all events in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. JSU announced last week a student had been tested for COVID-19. On Monday officials said that student had tested negative, but there were several pending tests from others affiliated with the university.

The Alabama Department of Public Health announced Wednesday morning there was one case of the coronavirus in Calhoun County. That announcement came as much of the nation, JSU included, halted the familiar routines of normal life.

Students, faculty and staff said the irony was not lost on them that the atmosphere Tuesday was similar almost exactly two years ago, March 19, 2018, when a tornado hit the north side of campus and the surrounding area.

While the tornado left buildings destroyed and trees uprooted, they said, both the storm and the virus disrupted classes and left the campus community feeling uncertain about the future.

Students, faculty and staff said the irony was not lost on them that the atmosphere Tuesday was similar almost exactly two years ago, March 19, 2018, when a tornado hit the north side of campus and the surrounding area.

While the tornado left buildings destroyed and trees uprooted, they said, both the storm and the virus disrupted classes and left the campus community feeling uncertain about the future.

A news release from the school noted that the anniversary fell on the first day of the school’s spring break, which was extended to start Thursday.

“While our campus and the surrounding community still bear the scars of that day, JSU is as strong as ever,” said the release.

‘So many unknown variables’

The pandemic hasn’t destroyed buildings or left debris in its wake, English instructor Rodney Bailey said, yet he finds it much more frightening than the tornado. Bailey said the tornado happened in a moment, and then it was over and the community could rebuild. But with the pandemic, he said, there isn’t an end in sight.

“At least, with the tornado, there was a sense of control and we had an endpoint. Once it ended, we knew what to do,” Bailey said. “And with this situation there are so many unknown variables that it’s really difficult to try to figure out what it is that we need to be doing to end it.”

Fifth-year senior Kevin Geeter noted the same contrast. He said the tornado only affected the city and university, leaving the decisions on how to respond up to them. Now, he said, his community is sharing the pandemic with the rest of the world, and local leaders have to base more of their decisions on outside influences.

“Our decisions seem not necessarily in our control,” Geeter said.

Bryan Elam, who works at JSU’s mail center, said the tornado was a lot more sudden compared to the coronavirus pandemic.

Elam said he went to work the day after the tornado hit to find dirt and branches everywhere and maintenance crews working as quickly as they could to clean the debris.

“There was this huge, huge pile of packages almost immediately because people couldn’t get their stuff,” he said. “We had to store a lot of stuff at the mail center.”

He said students gradually began coming back to campus in the week after the storm, which struck during spring break.

Now, he said, the campus is almost empty in the week before spring break, and those who remain are keeping their distance from each other. He said there’s an air of uncertainty on campus, like there was then, and both crises take time for people to adjust to.

“It’s not just like flicking a switch,” Elam said.

‘So much work and time’

Geeter, the senior, is also a music education major who was supposed to give one of the most important percussion performances of his college career Tuesday night.

Instead, he said, he’d have to reschedule his senior degree recital for the summer.

He said other seniors had the option of live-streaming their recitals and only performing in front of faculty, but this was a milestone he wanted to share with friends and family who had supported him along the way.

“There is so much work and time you put into this,” Geeter said. “It’s not fair to play in front of nobody.”

Geeter said some of his classes are over for the semester, while other teachers are trying to keep their classes going.

“Some of my teachers are saying, ‘Look, this is all we can do here. We’re done,’” Geeter said. “A couple of my classes are saying, ‘We still can do this stuff online.’”

‘You could see straight through the roof’

Bailey said he was out of town when the tornado struck, and came home after he was notified in a phone call. He described the drive home on Alabama 21 as eerie because of how many trees had been knocked down.

“The scariest part was that you could actually see Houston Cole Library from Wal-Mart,” Bailey said. “As I got closer to campus, it became impossible to reach campus because there were so many trees down in the roads.”

Geeter was in his hometown of Newnan, Ga., during the tornado. He recalled that it happened on the Monday of spring break.

When he came back, he said, he saw buildings and apartments destroyed and scores of volunteers out working. He recalled how badly damaged the now-demolished Merrill Hall was. 

“There was this big window at the front of it. The window was clearly broken,” Geeter said. “You could see straight through the roof.”

Geeter recalled how most of the music department’s ensembles were forced to cancel their concerts. Only the school’s gospel choir and steel-drum band got to perform, he said.

“All of a sudden, there were a lot of things that were taken away,” Geeter said.

After the tornado, Geeter said, students were given three options: they could finish their classes online, take an incomplete grade or take their grades as they were.

“The things I could finish out, I did,” Geeter said.

Bailey said most of his students chose to finish the semester, as well.

‘They’re worried about commencement’

Geeter said he was the one of many students, particularly seniors, on whom each year’s shutdown took an emotional toll.

“You have students who aren’t going to be able to live out their senior semester,” Geeter said of the current crisis. “They’re kind of bummed right now that it’s their last month of college and they don’t get to live it. They’re worried about commencement.”

Bailey said those end-of-college rituals, such as graduation, give students a sense of closure.

Bailey, who is also marketing and social media coordinator for the school of arts and humanities, said a canceled graduation ceremony is a legitimate concern for many students.

“It’s going to take away from all these years of studying, having challenges in their college career,” Bailey said. “All of that normally builds up to this rite of passage ... walking across that stage, shaking the president’s hand and receiving that degree.”

He said the ceremony could be replaced by something more impersonal.

“It may be someone mailing a degree. It may be something of an online graduation,” Bailey said. “It’s going to be up to us to make it as personal as possible, while at the same time making sure that the health and wellbeing of our students are still at the forefront of what we do.”

Both Bailey and Geeter expressed confidence in the university administration.

Bailey said he believed officials are “doing their very best to make sure that we are well-informed about everything that is taking place.”

Said Geeter, “Right now, there are so many things unknown. I still think JSU’s doing the best they can.”

Contact Staff Writer Mia Kortright at 256-235-3563.

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