by: Richard Elliot Updated:
CATOOSA COUNTY, Ga. - It's been very difficult for Sharon Vaughn to watch the news coming out of tornado-ravaged Oklahoma. Her hometown of Ringgold, Ga., is one of the few places that knows exactly what the Oklahoma survivors are going through.
"Last night, I didn't sleep at all," said Vaughn, a Ringgold High School principal. "Everything came back to me, not as a regular person, but as a principal thinking about having the responsibility of all those children."
Two years ago, an EF4 tornado ripped through the Catoosa County town, destroying homes, businesses and severely damaging the high school and middle school. The monster storm killed eight people, including two of Vaughn's students.
"We're different people because it taught you that lesson that you don't want to ever learn, that everything can change in a split second," said Vaughn. "Everything can change."
Vaughn said they all knew the storm was coming on that April day in 2011. Forecasters tracked it across several states. She drilled her students in tornado preps all day until school officials finally made the decision to send everyone home at 1 p.m. The tornado struck after dark.
The monster storm blew apart Ringgold High's Arts Center and severely damaged the neighboring middle school. Vaughn couldn't believe the damage when she arrived back to the school.
"What I had never seen before was a debris field," Vaughn said. "That was a new term for me. Our stuff was not here. Someone else's belongings were on top of us and ours were gone."
When she saw that the Oklahoma tornado destroyed two schools and killed several students, it just brought back all the memories. It brought back a lot of memories for her students, too.
"It brought back the hurt of it," said Ringgold High School senior Shelby Nichols. "It was just reliving that moment over and over again because it's just horror seeing your town just gone."
Vaughn realized the news out of Oklahoma might affect her students the way it affected her, so she broke them up into small groups Tuesday morning and let them talk about it. Some could, but others still can't.
"It brought up a lot of the bad memories," said senior Mary Parker. "But it also made us realize how much stronger of a community we are."
The flags flew at half staff outside Ringgold High even as construction crews finally started rebuilding the arts center two years after the disaster. Vaughn said her students are a lot more serious now, a lot less silly than other high schoolers. She also knows that the folks in Oklahoma will have to come to grips with the tragedy and loss the same way they all had to and continue to, which continues even two years later.
"Time does heal things," Vaughn said. "Time heals wounds, but the wounds just scab over, so you have to really give that to yourself and understand that life's going to be different."