Just 1,444 days after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake irreparably damaged two schools, Louisa County Superintendent Deborah Pettit peered out at educators from the new Louisa County High School’s stage.
“We have recovered, we have rebuilt—and we are better than ever,” Pettit said triumphantly Thursday morning. The crowd at the convocation for the 2015–16 school year erupted into cheers.
In just under four years, the county has weathered modular campuses at two schools after the 2011 Virginia earthquake damaged them beyond repair.
With the completion of Louisa County High School, which officially opens to the public with a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony today, Pettit said that leaves Louisa schools with one mission: educating children.
For the last several years, officials also have had to devote time to ensuring students had a place to learn.
“We have all of our facilities repaired, rebuilt and we’re ready to go,” she said.
The superintendent, who has spent 35 years with Louisa schools, said that the road to recovery has not been without trials.
“Maybe it’s good that we all had no idea of the challenges that we would face,” she says, “because that might’ve stopped us.”
‘EARTHQUAKES DIDN’T HAPPEN’
It was almost 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011, and Pettit was entering a Spanish classroom with Louisa High Principal Tom Smith when the ground started shaking.
Like many in central and Northern Virginia attested, the rumbling sounded and felt like a train for the first few moments.
When it didn’t stop, Pettit worried it was falling construction equipment. Perhaps worse, an explosion.
Once the school’s fire alarm went off, Pettit realized it was something much more dangerous.
“Earthquake did not [immediately] register, because earthquakes don’t happen here,” Pettit says.
After a second, she catches herself: “Or, didn’t happen here.”
Pettit remembers how staff worked to confirm students’ safety, then communicated with parents and transported students home in a timely fashion.
With time has come reflection, she says, and there was too much to do to worry about herself.
“Concern was my first thought. Was anyone hurt? I’d seen the ceiling tiles fall, but I'd had no idea,” she says. “I didn’t take time to know how afraid I was.”
Elsewhere in Louisa High that day, teachers worked to ensure the safety of students during the disaster nobody expected.
Math teacher Allison Guill, an educator with 27 years under her belt, said she also experienced those first few moments of “hearing the train” before “the noise kept going and everything started moving.”
Guill and her students didn’t retreat under their desks until one student exclaimed, “It’s an earthquake!”
“We didn’t really know ‘Do you leave the building now? Do you wait and see what happens?’” Guill recalled. “Nobody really knew the protocol. We all got under the desks and waited it out.”
It was the last day Guill spent in that classroom.
“They never let anyone back in,” she says. The school was condemned after the quake.
Instead, her next classroom was on Louisa High’s modular campus in the parking lot. Guill said that was nice—for a while.
“After a couple years, it’s just very isolated. You didn’t really interact with people outside of your pod,” she said, “because it was just easier to be in your rooms. It’s nice to have my own permanent space again.”
‘WE’RE CLOSING A CHAPTER IN LOUISA’
Lee Downey, the high school’s current principal, was its assistant principal in 2011.
But on Aug. 23, he had donned his other hat—husband and father to two school-age children—in Charlottesville with his wife for a doctor’s appointment.
The rumbling started mere minutes after the Downeys learned they were having a daughter.
“We thought maybe construction, that someone backed into a building,” he says. “Then we heard the epicenter was in Mineral.”
Downey’s children were both at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, the other Louisa County school that had to be condemned, torn down and rebuilt.
That school reopened in its new building last fall.
As parent and educator, Downey’s recollection is full of mixed emotions.
“It was weird because we wanted to be back here to help facilitate getting students home and safe,” Downey says. “It was a terrible thing to go through.”
But, with the high school rebuilt, Downey says the county can firmly put the event behind itself now.
“People had different emotions, all positive, but some were excited, some were just overcome with joy and shed tears of happiness,” he says. “We’re closing a chapter in Louisa.”