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Blessing in the skies

Despite hardship and inconvenience, some see benefits from JSU reconstruction

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Wallace Hall

Wallace Hall, home of Jacksonville State University's nursing school, remains vacant and awaiting demolition a year after  an EF-3 tornado tore through parts of JSU and the city of Jacksonville. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

JACKSONVILLE — Officials at Jacksonville State University still aren’t sure when the two most heavily damaged buildings from last March’s EF-3 tornado will be demolished and replaced, so Merrill Hall and Wallace Hall remain in ruins.

The university has already replaced many of the damaged roofs and windows around campus and workers have completed repairs at off-campus apartments. The Houston Cole Library still has scaffolding around it and a fence remains around the perimeter. Students have seen their classes displaced all across campus, while some even have to travel to the farthest reaches of the city.

The university declared then delayed plans to begin demolition on Merrill Hall in July 2018 and again last month, due to an insurance dispute with the Alabama Department of Finance over how much the university is owed for the damages.

That dispute has yet to be resolved four days before the anniversary of the tornado, according to David Thompson,director of JSU’s capital planning and facilities. He said those talks have been “progressing well.”

“We’re definitely moving forward,” he said. “We have a design team that is hired and we’re moving forward with new facilities for both Merrill Hall and Wallace Hall.”

The university believes it is owed $22 million from its state-managed insurance to replace Merrill Hall, according to Jim Brigham, vice president for finance and administration. The adjusters have offered $15 million. He said FEMA expected JSU to get $19 million for the building.

JSU could apply for a FEMA grant to cover 75 percent of the difference between FEMA’s estimate of $19 million and the state’s $15 million offer, but not the difference between JSU’s estimate and the state offer, according to Brigham.

‘Organized chaos’

Despite the ongoing back and forth between the university and its insurance adjusters, Thompson remains optimistic about the university’s progress in rebuilding.

The university has already “designed” the demolition of Merrill Hall, he said, referring to the steps involved in taking it down, and is working on the demolition design for Wallace Hall. Renderings of the new Merrill Hall design have been created ahead of its demolition, while design plans for the new Wallace Hall are in progress.

The recovery process since the tornado has been “organized chaos,” according to Thompson. He said this has been the most difficult situation he’s dealt with in his position.

“I can’t imagine being in a more desperate situation than 50 of the 70 buildings having some type of damage,” he said, “barring an earthquake or nuclear attack.”

The university has “absolutely” kept the possibility of future tornados in mind when planning the new Merrill and Wallace buildings, according to Thompson. Each building will have a storm shelter that can hold thousands of people. Wallace’s shelter capacity will be approximately 2,500, while Merrill’s will be able to hold around 3,000.

Shift in scenery

The damage to Merrill and Wallace left both buildings unusable for students of the business and health professions schools. Those students have been temporarily placed at the former Jacksonville hospital and the old Kitty Stone Elementary.

That scenery shift doesn’t seem to have affected the students negatively.

“It’s still school,” said Devin Hollis, a JSU business student. “The material didn’t change just because the location did.”

Hollis said he likes the openness of the old Kitty Stone campus and some of the classrooms are nicer than some that were in Merrill Hall.

It was surreal to see Merrill hall after the tornado, according to Hollis, since he had been in the building days before. International business instructor Lenn Rainwater echoed those comments of shock and dismay.

“Seeing Merrill after the storm was devastating,” she said. “I was amazed to see how much damage wind can do to a structure of that strength.”

Rainwater said much of the student work she’d held onto over the years — such as presentations and papers — was destroyed by water. Everything in her office was covered with wet insulation and she couldn’t salvage much.

“I think I was in a state of shock when I saw,” she said. “I had to actually go in and get what I could, but a lot of my stuff was destroyed.”

Rainwater said she didn’t have any issue when she found out the business school would be temporarily housed at the old Kitty Stone Elementary campus. Hollis and Rainwater agree this change in venue has in many ways been an upgrade.

“I thought it was a great idea and I was glad we had this facility available,” she said. “The way I view it is that we actually have better classrooms now than some of the older classrooms that were 40 years old in Merrill.”

Hollis and Rainwater’s only complaint stemmed from a shortage of parking spaces. The former Kitty Stone campus is being shared by the business school and some classes from the music school.

According to nursing student Kate Terry, parking isn’t an issue at the old Jacksonville hospital, which is currently being shared by music and nursing students.

“It is kinda weird and cool having class in an old hospital, but most of us will end up working in one somewhere, so it’s not too strange for us,” she said.

Tricky transitions

This past year hasn’t been as easy on the music department, according to Ken Bodiford, director of bands. The entire music department was housed in Mason Hall before the tornado damaged the building. The department is now spread across eight different buildings, and some aren’t even on campus.

Music students now take classes in the Stone Center, the football stadium press box, the old Kitty Stone campus and the former Jacksonville hospital, while the department’s offices are in Ayers Hall.

“The faculty and the students have been wonderful,” he said. “You never hear them complaining. They just do what we have to do.”

He said it’s been tough on the students since they have to travel across the city between classes, sometimes in as little as 15 minutes. The music faculty has been very lenient when students come in late due to traffic, according to Bodiford.

“Everybody has been working together very well to make the best of a bad situation,” he said.

“In the big scheme of things I think the transition has gone as smoothly as it possibly could.”

Renovations to the music building are mostly to its interior, but the university is adding a new wing on the south end. The project is moving along very well, according to Thompson, considering the department’s goal is to open August 1, a day before the Marching Southerners start band camp.

“I’m gonna go ahead and reserve some facilities for the Marching Southerners just in case we’re not back in,” Bodiford said.

Reaping the benefits

Thompson’s not sure anyone else could have dealt with this any more smoothly than JSU did — a tribute to everyone involved, he said. Without the tornado JSU wouldn’t have been able to afford these improvements or be in the position the university will be in a short period of time, according to Thompson.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” he said. “A year ago when this happened we were all very anxious, nervous and scared. We didn’t know what the future would hold for us, but 12 months later we see all of these incredible benefits we’re going to get from it.”