First Pentecostal Church, located on Tuscaloosa Road in Columbus, was destroyed during the Feb. 23 tornado. According to Kenneth Wiegel of the city's building inspection department, the church will have to meet the city's flood ordinance requirements before the church can be rebuilt. Wiegel said the ordinance applies to all structures who suffered at least a 50-percent loss that are located in the city's flood zones. Photo by: Slim Smith/Dispatch Staff
March 14, 2019 10:41:19 AM
It's been a busy few weeks for the Columbus building inspection department in the wake of the Feb. 23 tornado that destroyed or damaged 275 homes and 38 businesses in the city.
That isn't likely to change over the coming months, although the nature of the work has changed.
"We had been working with (Columbus) Light and Water to determine which properties were safe to have their power reconnected and with (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) in assessing damaged structures," said Kenneth Wiegel, the head of the city's five-person building inspection department. "That's slowed down a little this week. Now, the work will shift toward permitting."
As owners prepare to rebuild or replace damaged properties, the city's building inspection department will be a key first step.
"As people start to hear from their insurance companies, we're beginning to see quite a few renovation permits or rebuild permits," Wiegel said. "That will only pick up going forward. We will also start to see some requests for (demolition) permits."
As property owners consider their options, Wiegel said there is some confusion about exactly what will be required as it relates to city building codes, which have changed over the years since many of the original homes and businesses were built.
"One myth going around is that any structure that has had more than 50 percent damage must have the entire property brought up to current code," Wiegel said. "That's not true. Only the renovated or rebuilt parts of any structure have to be brought up to code."
That confusion may be linked to another "50 percent" requirement that does apply to entire properties. For structures built in flood plains, any renovation or rebuild requires the entire property to meet current elevation requirements under the city's flood ordinance. Wiegel said no single-family homes affected by the tornado are located in the flood plain areas, but that's not the case for businesses.
"That does affect quite a few places, mostly along Waterworks Road and Tuscaloosa Road," Wiegel said. "I've already talked to Steve Blaylock, the pastor at First Pentecostal Church on Tuscaloosa Road. They'll have to meet that requirement because their insurance company determined the church was a total loss. I have the elevation requirement. What I don't have is the elevation of the property. I'll need an engineering certificate that has that information before we can issue a permit."
Another business whose plans could be affected by the flood ordinance is Johnston Tombigbee Furniture. The furniture manufacturer, founded in 1932, is one of the city's oldest businesses and while its production plant was not damaged by the tornado, it has two warehouses on Waterworks Road that are under the city's flood ordinance regulations. One of those warehouses was totally destroyed, while the other suffered roof damage.
Owner Reau Berry said he's not certain of his company's plans for the affected property.
"It's such an unknown to us," Berry said. "We never have been through a tornado, so we're in the middle of waiting for answers from our insurance company."
Berry said he's not sure whether he'll rebuild the warehouses on the current site, which would require bringing the elevation of the buildings to meet the city's flood ordinance or build warehouses at another site.
"Right now everything is totally undetermined," he said.
While some property owners will rebuild, some may not, which has sparked discussion among city officials about what to do about properties that are not rebuilt.
"It's a good question," Wiegel said. "We certainly want to be sympathetic to people, but at the same time, after a reasonable amount of time, those lots will have to be cleared. Exactly what that time frame should be, we really haven't decided. We want to be sympathetic to the property owners, but at the same time, this does represent a public safety issue at some point."
Dispatch reporter Isabelle Altman contributed to this report.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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