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Palm Beach Post (Florida)

 

When a tornado ripped through Palm Beach Gardens in the early morning hours of Jan. 23, it left behind crumpled bleachers, battered dugouts and twisted masses of metal at the Benjamin School and nearby Dwyer High School.

The schools' athletic fields took the brunt of the damage after severe storms lashed northern Palm Beach County, forcing both schools to close for a day because of safety concerns.

At Dwyer, the storms blew the roofs off both softball dugouts, destroyed batting cages and a baseball equipment shed, and knocked down most of the fencing surrounding the baseball and softball fields.

An exact damage estimate is unknown, but Superintendent Robert Avossa gave a preliminary figure of $500,000 to $1 million when he toured the school in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

At Benjamin, the storm ripped up the bleachers at the football stadium; crumpled the stadium's press box; destroyed the tennis court fencing and wind screens; knocked down a scoreboard and a light pole at the football field; tore chunks out of the track; damaged the softball and baseball scoreboards; and destroyed most of the school's outdoor athletic equipment.

The turf on the football field also was severely damaged and most likely needs to be replaced, Athletic Director Ryan Smith said.

Smith estimated storm damage at well over $1 million.

"We are still working with our insurance company and vendors to determine (the amount)," he said.

What does this mean for both schools' athletic teams this spring?

A big headache.

At Dwyer, the baseball and softball fields have turned into a construction site. The old fencing has been removed, and new fencing will be in place by the end of the month, school district spokeswoman Julie Houston Trieste said. The backstops also need to be redesigned, which could take another month.

As a result, the Panthers' baseball and softball teams have pushed back most of their home games until the end of March, when the fields are expected to be ready. For now, both teams are practicing off-campus.

"It's not ideal," said Dwyer softball coach Kim Jalm, whose team is practicing at Independence Middle School in Jupiter. "We don't really have a home, and it definitely feels that way."

Managing practice and game schedules has been even trickier at Benjamin, where tennis, lacrosse and track and field all have been affected by the storm.

The boys and girls tennis teams, both coached by Delores Colton, are practicing and playing matches at the Palm Beach Gardens Tennis Center.

The facility on 117th Court North has been a gracious host, Colton said, though it's been an adjustment for her players.

"They are all coping very well," she said. "Hauling equipment and dealing with snacks and drinks for guests is harder. The players also have to get used to playing on clay courts instead of hard courts. They are adapting well. Palm Beach Gardens Tennis Center staff have been wonderful to work with. They definitely saved our season."

Colton said she hopes to be back on campus for district tournament competition in April.

The Bucs' boys and girls lacrosse teams also have had to scatter this spring, with the teams practicing at various sites throughout northern Palm Beach County.

Home games will be played at Benjamin's lower school campus in North Palm Beach, and start times have been pushed up to 4 p.m.

The new schedule has taken a little getting used to, but there have been few complaints from the players, boys lacrosse coach Shane Rye said.

"Nobody got hurt," he said. "We wake up every day with an unlimited supply of fresh water. There's a lot of other things to complain about. Having to travel a little bit isn't really that big of a deal."

Benjamin also has had to cancel two track meets, according to Smith. The track needs to be repaired, and the school is waiting on replacement equipment.

jwagner@pbpost.com Twitter: @JRWagner5

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