A lower than expected funding commitment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for renovating the Hunt campus has sent Columbus Municipal School District back to the drawing board.
The district planned to use a combination of insurance settlement and federal and state emergency management funds toward an estimated $16 million project to essentially rebuild the four-building complex on 20th Street North that was badly damaged by an EF-3 tornado in February 2019. CMSD was hoping FEMA would foot $9.8 million of the bill, but project architect Taylor Guild III, with Eley Guild Hardy Architects, reported to the school board Monday that number would be closer to $1.6 million.
CMSD planned for construction to start this month on a facility that would house the district’s sixth-graders, various workforce and teacher development programs and the R.E. Hunt Museum on local African American history. Those plans are now at a standstill, according to board president Yvonne Cox.
“It may be just a little disheartening right now, just finding this out,” Cox said. “I think we had our hopes in (that) this was the month that we were going to start everything. It seems like we’re back to the drawing board.”
CMSD recently settled a lawsuit that Middlesex Insurance Company, which holds the policy on Hunt, filed against the district in March 2020. CMSD had wanted $14 million from insurance, while Middlesex claimed it was entitled to only $4.8 million. The actual settlement amount has not been publicly disclosed.
FEMA is responsible for funding 75 percent of the uninsured portion, with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency picking up 12.5 percent. Even though Guild said the district’s estimates are based on bids received for the work, FEMA relied on the insurance company’s estimates without ever stepping foot in the building.
“I don’t know how else to put it: FEMA, for the two-story building, gymnasium, and cafeteria, used the insurance company’s estimate,” Guild said. “In a report, they wrote that the building has a pungent, strong musty odor, and they didn’t go inside of it. They did a ‘tabletop’ inspection. I’m not sure what a ‘tabletop’ inspection is, but they didn’t go in the building. They used the insurance company’s lowball estimate, which wasn’t adequate in scope or price. They used that estimate, then they made the cost to repair it the same as the estimate. What FEMA is proposing as far as their portion of that part was zero.”
Guild reported that all proper documentation was submitted to FEMA in May 2021. Despite competitive bids for the uninsured museum being $1,466,000 — with FEMA expected to cover $1,061,000 — FEMA told the architects that facility would only take $193,000 to repair, and it would fund $145,000.
For hazard mitigation, which covers windows and doors, the actual cost was $2.5 million, for which the district was expecting $1.9 million from FEMA. Instead, it has committed $1.4 million.
“How could they use our insurance estimate, (which) we’ve been fighting in federal court for two years, as their basis of the cost to repair and not the actual bid results?” Guild said Monday.
FEMA has agreed to review the information again, Guild told the board. There are two rounds of appeals then the last option is federal arbitration, which would take place in Washington, D.C. The architecture firm entered arbitration three times with work they did after Hurricane Katrina heavily impacted the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005 and won all three times. The firm is not giving up this fight either, Guild said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll win in the end; it’s just going to be a tough fight,” Guild said.
Cox proposed the board hold a special-call meeting before next month’s regular meeting to discuss funding and plans for Hunt moving forward. She also floated the idea that the district may just have to restore it back to its original state instead of upgrading it.
“The board has been patient, and the community is ready,” Cox said. “We may need to consider a special-call meeting to get a genuine understanding of where we are in the rebuild of Hunt and how we are going to move forward.”
Prior to the tornado, CMSD was using the Hunt campus for its alternative school and afterschool programs. It was built in the early 1950s as an equalization school for Black students during the waning years of segregation.
Board attorney Chris Hemphill advised Guild to begin making calls to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who is on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for Homeland Security which is the governing body of FEMA. Guild said he has already been calling the senator.
“For them to not use current, actual bid numbers is almost beyond belief,” Hemphill said. “We have firm bids based on current construction costs. (We need to) legally pursue that first before we fold in and start cutting costs.”
Guild said he will also contact MEMA, and the board opted to wait until that had happened before setting a date for the special-call meeting.