Columbus Success Academy classrooms are exposed after a tornado tore the roof off the former Hunt High School building. Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat said the district plans to repair damage after receiving a report from the insurance company. She added at least eight classrooms and several administrative offices were destroyed on the east side of the second floor. Photo by: Courtesy photo/Steven Perkins
February 26, 2019 10:47:20 AM
Crews of Columbus Municipal School District employees and volunteers have already begun cleaning up a former high school partially destroyed by the EF-3 tornado that ripped through the city Saturday. District officials said they plan to repair and rebuild.
Columbus Success Academy, formerly Hunt High School, lost its roof and 12 of its upstairs classrooms in the storm, which touched down just after 5 p.m. and devastated large sections of 20th Street North where the school is located.
CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat said although the first floor is "pretty much intact," it was the east side of the second floor that had the roof torn off, exposing classrooms to outside elements.
By Monday, CMSD relocated the 25 students now enrolled in the success academy -- the district's alternative school -- to a isolated hallway at Columbus High School. Labat said city officials, CMSD custodial staff, citizens and other volunteers helped move desks, chairs, tables and instructional materials to CHS Sunday afternoon.
"We were elated with their willingness to help us transport the classrooms," Labat said. "You always see the best in people in times of despair. It's amazing what can happen when we work together."
Labat said she used social media and a "Falcon blast" on the CMSD smart phone application to alert parents that school would continue as normal Monday morning.
"We started on time," Labat said. "The bus routes all ran well. We have about 30 students who have reported they are displaced and two families lost their homes entirely."
Labat added, even with those displaced, more than 85 percent of students were in attendance district-wide Monday. There were a total of 394 students absent. On average, the district has about 95 percent in attendance each day.
With Hunt's students temporarily moved to CHS, the district has focused its attention on repairing the damaged building.
Earlier this month, CMSD's board of trustees approved more than $21,000 in renovations to Hunt as part of its comprehensive capital improvement plan. Approved work included repairing a skylight in the gymnasium, creating a new entrance to the gymnasium and fillng in a wall.
With Hunt's facility currently vacated and in extreme disrepair, a new plan will be required, Labat said.
"We are going to recalibrate our efforts for the capital improvement plan," Labat said. "The priority now is getting the Hunt facility back operational. Now there's other things we may do simultaneously, but I'll go back to the board and let them make adjustments."
Labat said she has already spoken with representatives from the district's insurance company. An adjuster has been on-site and has evaluated both internal and external damage. She added she hopes to receive a report by the end of the week and update the board of trustees during its next regular board meeting.
"We will rise above this," Labat said. "We are working together and we have a great team. We plan to rebuild the facility and make sure that the we have a building the community can be proud of."
R.E. Hunt Museum and MDAH
Not only has Hunt been home to the CSA students, the back portion of the school houses the R.E Hunt Museum, which pays homage to the history of the once segregated black campus.
Until Columbus schools desegregated in 1971, Hunt was one of the only black high schools in Lowndes County, and it was held in high esteem by the African-American community.
Museum director Johnny Johnson said the storm shattered panes of glass and caused the roof to leak in every room. He rushed to the museum Saturday night in an attempt to prevent water from further damaging artifacts.
"We had major damage at the museum," Johnson said. "Lots of our artifacts were damaged by water. I think we can do some restoration to some of them, but some of them are just destroyed."
The museum's artifacts include graduating class photos, biographies of prominent Columbus African Americans and antiques from the mid-20th century. Johnson said he's not sure which artifacts he can restore, but is working with the insurance agency to ensure he can open up the museum again.
"We hope to reopen," Johnson said. "We are going to try to store most of the (artifacts) somewhere else. We hope to reopen right in the same spot."
With its rich history, the school district has been working toward receiving a historic landmark status form the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In contrast, MDAH has granted State Landmark status to the abandoned Lee High School on Military Road -- which was built around 1950 and served as the white high school in the final years of segregation in the city -- ahead of a promised multi-million dollar redevelopment at the site for which the developer hopes to use historic tax credits.
Labat said although Hunt is damaged, the district will not halt efforts to have Hunt landmarked.
"MDAH was on campus evaluating the damage," she said. "I wasn't able to speak with them, but even with a disaster, the landmark status pushes forward."
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