Rebuilding Update: Ten Months After the Storm


The worst day in the 135-year history of JSU may also be its most beneficial.  

On March 19, 2018, an EF-3 tornado ripped through campus, causing millions of dollars in damages, including significant damage to 50 of the university’s 70 buildings. Merrill Hall and the Alumni House were total losses. Other buildings – such as Mason Hall – are still undergoing major repairs. 

But the mantra of “JSU Strong” came to fruition. Not only did classes resume sooner than anyone expected, spring commencement was held in May allowing seniors to graduate on time. Looking back, it’s hard for David Thompson, JSU’s director of Capital Planning and Facilities, to put those first few hours and days into fair perspective.

“It was nothing short of an act of God,” Thompson said. “It was not a flood from a building that had a broken water line or a fire in a building from a space heater. We had an F3 tornado come through the heart of our campus – there’s no other way to describe it.”

But if the March tornado was an act of God, what’s happened since is nothing short of miraculous. 

While the clatter and rumble of chainsaws and heavy loaders were still echoing across campus and the City of Jacksonville, JSU officials were meeting with insurance claims adjusters and FEMA representatives, as well as those from the State of Alabama, all determined to get JSU up and running better than before.

Now, ten months removed from the storm, JSU’s campus has been the sight of an extraordinary recovery. And that’s not just the opinion of those like Thompson and JSU President John Beehler.

“Because of this disaster, we have many professionals from many different viewpoints tell us that what we’ve been able to accomplish at JSU has been nothing short of a miracle," Thompson said. 

Total estimates for the repairs and rebuilding projects currently taking place on campus are $70 million, though Thompson believes it’s a lot more than that. For that, FEMA is covering 75 percent of the costs, the State of Alabama 12.5 percent, and JSU is responsible for 12.5 percent.

While the tornado caused a variety of damage across campus, what it did to roofs was among the most extensive, so that was where much of the repairs were initially focused. As of early January, most of the roof work has been completed. 

The buildings that require more work are Houston Cole Library, Stephenson Hall and Martin Hall, “which is pretty close to being finished,” Thompson said. 

To understand how the recovery effort has progressed so quickly requires a crash course in insurance coverage. After a disaster, the insurance company sends in an adjuster to create a line-item estimate that clearly identifies the damages and the cost for fixing the damages. This includes everything from the cost of materials to the hiring of architects, contractors and engineers to design the work. 

Typically, the work begins only after all the costs have been negotiated and agreed upon – but doing that would have meant that JSU would never have been able to resume fall classes. The State of Alabama’s Department of Finance and JSU’s insurance carrier understood this. When the insurance adjustor was sent to JSU to assess the damage, he was given the authority to determine when the work could begin, Thompson explained.

“Without having identified the damages to an individual building – never mind the totality – he let us get started,” Thompson said.

Another boost came from FEMA and its use of “mitigation,” which are the funds available for any material or products that were damaged as a result of the storm. These funds have allowed JSU to not only repair structural damage, but in many cases improve existing building.

In terms or roof repair and what FEMA has done, asphalt shingles are a good example. Most JSU roofs use the 30-year, architectural standard asphalt shingles. That’s what the tornado pulled up and tossed across parking lots and in trees.

“I could make T-shirts all day with all the catchphrases I hear,” Thompson said, “but the one I hear the most is, ‘Insurance is only responsible for like, kind and quality’ – meaning insurance owes JSU for the 30-year asphalt shingle.”

But that’s not what FEMA does. Instead, FEMA provides a 40-year, impact-resistant asphalt shingle. Instead of it being fastened with two nails, it’s going to be fastened with six, and it’s going be a different kind of nail. Instead of a 15-pound felt mat underneath the roof, FEMA pays for 30-pound felt. 

“So anywhere you see a roof that’s been replaced, it’s basically on steroids because what we replaced it with is that much better than what was on there before the tornado,” Thompson said. “FEMA doesn’t ever want to have to come back to the same place for the same event again and that’s what the mitigation money is for. When you’re looking at 30 major roofing projects that FEMA participated in, and I don’t have the exact dollar amount in front of me, but it is significant.”

It’s a common theme to all the buildings that were damaged in the storm. When insurance paid for a new roof, FEMA came and made it better. That’s what has happened on every single building.

“It’s time for JSU to start saying out loud that we would have never, in 100 years, been able to do the amount of work we’re about to do,” Thompson said. “The vast majority of it is going to be done on the back of our insurance carrier.” 

The best example of this is Merrill Hall, which was destroyed in the storm. Thompson expects to get $15 to 20 million from insurance. FEMA has what is commonly known as the 50 percent rule. Basically, if the cost of improvements or the cost to repair the damage exceeds 50 percent of the market value of the building, it must be brought up to current standards.  

FEMA approved $38 million for Merrill Hall. Subtract the $15-20 million that insurance will provide, FEMA gives the rest, minus JSU’s 12.5 percent on the dollar. 

“That means if insurance does give us $20 million, and FEMA is at $38 million, that leaves $18 million,” Thompson said, his fingers stabbing at a nearby calculator, “then 12.5 percent of that is $2.25 million to get a brand new School of Business building worth $38 million. That’s real. That has already happened.”

Demolition of Merrill Hall is set it begin in February. The university has drafted renderings of what the new building will look like – a more modern structure that honors the tradition of the original design – with a tentative opening date of January 2021. 

Another example is Mason Hall. The tornado came through, ripped the roof off and tore all the HVAC units out of the walls. There was severe water damage inside the building all totaling “in the neighborhood” of $3 to $4 million, though Thompson is cautious, saying that these numbers are not exact. 

Repair bids came in at $6.2 million. Insurance will cover 20 percent of that. JSU has committed to completely gutting the entire facility – keeping only the structure and the roof-top HVAC units – and building a new Department of Music that will have all new elevators and wheelchair accessible restrooms, the performance center will have permanent fixed, seating and theatrical lighting, even a loading dock – everything better than it was before. 

“We are going to completely modernize the Department of Music,” Thompson said. “For $5 million, JSU is going to get an all new center for music. If we had to do that from scratch, it would be no less than $20 million.”

Thompson has high hopes that Wallace Hall, which houses the School of Health Professions and Wellness, will qualify for FEMA’s 50 percent rule and will benefit much as Merrill Hall did.

“All things considered, maybe we spend $10-15 million out of pocket,” Thompson said. “But we’re going to get probably $200 to $300 million worth of work. That just doesn’t happen.”

Finally, there’s Pete Mathews Coliseum, where JSU has committed to upgrade everything on the interior of the building, of which insurance will pay three-quarters. As with Mason Hall, Pete Mathews will get modernized with new locker rooms, training rooms, referee suites, a swimming pool and auxiliary gym. It’s also getting a new roof and HVAC units. The basketball portion of the building reopened and began hosting the Gamecocks again in December.

“Everything on the inside of that building will be brand new when we walk away at the end of January,” Thompson said.  “For that, we’ll pay a little out of pocket – say, maybe $3 million. Normally, a brand-new Pete Mathews Coliseum isn’t a penny less than $40 million.”

While the university and its students, faculty and staff continue to recover from the traumatic spring break tornado, Thompson is in awe at the good that has come out of the catastrophe. He said, “We are getting amazing results out of a truly terrible thing.”

For all of Thompson’s hard work shepherding the university through this unprecedented process, he was voted JSU’s Employee of the Year in December.