FEMA awards $2.3 million to Cassville schools

Wednesday, February 7, 2018
This photo from December 2015 shows the damage caused by flooding in the intermediate school building, which took on 4-plus inches of water during an extended rain event. Contributed photo

Money given after appeal of May 2016 application

More than two years after the flood in December 2015 that left the basement classrooms at Cassville Intermediate School in an unusable state, the district has been approved for $2.3 million of project mitigation work from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster program.

The severe storms and flooding of 2015 resulted in significant water damage that caused the concrete floors to heave and crack in classrooms, hallways, storage areas, and a main exit area. Flood waters also damaged the building during this disaster event ruining books, classroom equipment, and furniture.

Students returned to the refurbished intermediate school rooms in October 2017 nearly two years after they were flooded in December 2015. Contributed photo

After the rain stopped and flood waters subsided, Cassville staff went to work. With unique challenges, significant repair work had to be completed with the opportunity to repair and mitigate the intermediate building to a 21st century learning environment for Cassville students.

While FEMA funding was not immediately secured, the district was prepared to absorb the cost in the best interest of students. Thus, when the district received the certified letter stating funding was approved, a large financial burden was lifted.

The $2.3 million, of which the District would be eligible for 75 percent reimbursement, in FEMA money means the district now has more freedom in its budget and can begin the process of planning and researching how taxpayer money can best be used. Some uses may include:

• Paying off a $1.8 million loan that was secured to pay for the mitigation and repairs. Being able to pay off the loan early will result in tens-of-thousands of dollars saved to the district in interest fees.

• Exploring other capital project options across campus

• Updating and maintaining current facility needs such as security camera upgrades, roof maintenance, replacement of flooring and heating and air upgrades upgrades, and more

• Reevaluating transportation needs and discussing bus purchases that may be necessary

• Considering updating technology including, but not limited to, computers for students and teachers, network upgrades and expanding the 1:1 initiative

“The Board of Education evaluated many options and plans that could be considered but, we understood that our focus had to be the teacher and student needs," said Carolyn Bowen, Board of Education member. "The scope of damage and the impact to not only our intermediate school but other buildings when we shifted and moved classrooms to accommodate the repair work was also very challenging."

After discussion and research, the board approved a plan to make repairs to the building and take additional mitigation efforts to prevent damage from future heavy rain events. Demolition included the removal of the concrete slab floors and the removal of contents in the basement classrooms and hallways. Additional below the slab work was also excavated to allow for mitigation options in addressing any future flood events.

Prior to the repairs, mitigation efforts were the priority for the district. The Board of Education made it a priority to select an Engineering and Architect firm that would understand and have the capability to design, engineer, and implement a repair plan that would fix and prevent future disruptions and impacts to our classrooms. Anderson Engineering designed a highly sophisticated and complex drainage system that will accommodate heavy rain or flooding events taking flood water around the building and under the building away. Mitigation work included the installation of an extensive internal and external drainage system that will transfer ground water away from the building efficiently.

Overall the visible repairs included new concrete floors, installation of cabinets, new paint, ceiling tiles, interior and exterior doors, vinyl composition tile flooring and classroom contents such as desk, chairs, file cabinets, bookshelves, charging stations and teacher desk, just to name a few. But the unseen repair and mitigation portions of the project are really the highlight of what has been done to ensure future flood events do not impact our classrooms, teachers, and students again.

Such work came at a hefty price tag. While the District will receive insurance coverage for some of the damages and repair costs, those dollars will not eligible for reimbursement from FEMA. The district would have been left with an estimated $2.3 million dollars of repair and mitigation work.

“The Board of Education spent a great deal of time and effort evaluating our repair needs," said Richard Asbill, Cassville superintendent. "We worked with Anderson Engineering and Paragon to come up with potential plans and estimated cost for each of those plans.

"While the District’s insurance carrier was extremely supportive in the claim response insurance only covered the repair costs or the cost to return it to pre-disaster condition, this was a major concern for our board when we evaluated possible future flood events."

Dusty Reid, facilities and operations director, said the Board of Education deserves a lot of credit for looking at the project from both a repair and mitigation viewpoint.

"When faced with the fiscal challenge of repairing the building based on insurance coverage or repairing and fixing the facility for future generations of students, our Board did what was right and responsible," he said.

The initial request for FEMA funding was submitted in May of 2016 after former Gov. Jay Nixon declared the floods of 2015 a natural disaster. The first request for funding was denied in September of 2016 based on FEMA calculations that did not include past facility damages, costs, and additional errors not captured in the initial FEMA review process.

With the help of Asbill and Reid, the Board of Education made an effort to reach out to both local and state government to assist the district in requesting a review and an appeal request. State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, and State Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, were contacted and provided support at the state level.

Ultimately, the district had to ask for advocacy at the federal level. Asbill and Reid met with the office of U.S. Rep. Billy Long to discuss concerns and errors that were made during the first round of the FEMA application process.

Long and his staff began a grassroots effort on behalf of the district to assist the District in gaining an audience with FEMA officials and in their request to have the application for disaster funding reviewed. Long and his Springfield staff member Michael Ussery were instrumental in advocating for their local constituents.

“I am not sure that we would have been able to secure a fair and legitimate voice with SEMA or FEMA without Congressman Long and Mr. Ussery’s assistance and support in advocating for our school and community," Reid said.

Once the district received a chance to meet with FEMA and demonstrate the initial FEMA calculation errors, the district was able to begin an appeal application. That appeal application included a 14-month process that required thousands of pages of documentation, engineering and design plans, and hours of work to complete an official appeal and cost calculation of the damages.

“There are times when a you are presented a challenge that you have to decide if you want to go around it or turn away from it," Asbill said. "In this case, our Board of Education took on the responsibility of persevering through two years of tough decisions but continuing to advocate for our students, community, and our school. I am honored that our Board understands and is committed to setting the tone for doing what is right for teachers and students, but also accepting the responsibility to go beyond a repair and addressing a plan to meet the challenge head-on and fixing this issue so teachers and students won’t have to face this issue in the future.

"Our local Board, combined with Congressman Long’s efforts, proved to be vitally important in achieving a solution that was right for our local taxpayers and families."

As a result of Long’s advocacy efforts, the dedication of the Board of Education and the commitment from administrators and staff, the district received a certified letter in mid-January from FEMA stating their appeal request had been approved and would be eligible for mitigation funds.

"On behalf of Cassville R-IV School, I want to say thank you to our teachers, administrators, and office staff that had to endure this flood disaster and construction repair process. I know it was not easy having classrooms displaced but we were able to make it right," Asbill said. "I would also like to thank everyone for praying for our school, the repairs, and the FEMA appeal, God really blessed our need and deserves all the credit of bringing our Board, State and Federal Legislators, and FEMA through a process that seemed impossible."

After two full years of being displaced, repair and mitigation construction work is complete and students were welcomed back to the intermediate building on October 20, 2017.

The district is currently working with Long's office and will host an open house in the spring.

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