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Tornado damage at Norris High School on May 23, 2004. (Journal Star Archives)

If you didn't know where to look, you might not know anything out of the ordinary had happened to the school on a spring Saturday night five years ago, says the district's superintendent.

"There's a dent in the wall, or a scratch here and there," said Roy Baker, superintendent of Norris School District. "But otherwise, you probably wouldn't know."

On the night of May 22, 2004, an F4 tornado, nearing the end of its devastating 52-mile path and having already leveled the town of Hallam, roared through the Norris schools site, causing $35 million damage.

Now, five years later, things are pretty much back on track, Baker said. The way residents of the 225-square-mile district rallied around Norris as a unifying point for the surrounding areas helped create a strong bond among people who endured the experience, he said.

"The culture here is close-knit," he said. "After the storm, people come together. There is real pride there."

From his first flashlight-lit meeting with other administrators and board members after the storm had cleared, Baker rammed through the rebuilding process that summer.

Remarkably, by fast-tracking contracts and construction, the school was able to open in the fall, though some grades were in portables until later in the school year.

"I said, 'I'm going to get this thing going as soon as humanly possible,'" Baker said of the rebuilding.

It's that same attitude, a drive to get the job done quickly and get kids back on track, he said, that's guided him in the intervening years.

"Get it done. And move on," Baker said of his philosophy. "There's no point in dwelling on it now."

Tim Onwiler, student council president at Norris High, agreed. He was a middleschooler at Norris when the tornado hit. At the time, the middle school was housed in the high school building. Since the tornado, a new middle school has been built, having been approved by voters before the storm.

Onwiler said he doesn't think about the tornado much these days, except when there's a report of severe weather.

"We don't mess around if there's a warning of a tornado," said the senior from Panama. "We have our severe weather kit and take cover. I think, 'Could this happen again?'"

Onwiler said he was at home when the tornado hit in 2004 and didn't realize how bad it was until he saw his school - the auditorium without a ceiling.

"Then I realized it was serious," he said.

Like Baker, Onwiler said people who lived through that time five years ago have a bond forged by a shared experience that has made an already close-knit community even tighter.

Elsewhere along the tornado's path, there is also a shared bond, said Sue Homolka, who lives on a farm near Swanton. What some people unaffected by the tornado might not realize, she said, is how long it took to feel that life was anything like normal.

For six months, she and her husband slept on a mattress in their living room, the only room not damaged when the tornado struck their home just as it began its nearly two-hour trek from near Daykin to near Palmyra.

"To this day, I have people say, 'Oh, that's right, you were in the path of the tornado,'" she said of the storm that became known as "the Hallam Tornado."

"It hit all of us before it even got to Hallam. People don't realize how bad it was. And it wasn't just us. Everybody lived through it."

Homolka said she thought about the tornado every day for a long time - at least two years.

These days, life is more like it was before the storm. But there are still things that remind her of the storm, effects that linger on.

"To me, I miss our trees," she said. "Now, we have very few, and with nothing to block it, the wind blows constantly."

Superintendent Baker said he gets flashes of those early days, that frantic summer of rebuilding. Once in a while, he'll drive by the new and rebuilt schools and stop to think about what the community endured and accomplished together.

"'Wow, that was something,' I'll say to myself. 'This was quite an accomplishment.'"

Reach Lisa Munger at lisagmunger@gmail.com.

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