New Nicholas superintendent unveils emergency plan; no decision on flood-damaged schools

By Alex Wiederspiel in News
SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. — Eight days before Donna Burge-Tetrick was scheduled to assume her role as Nicholas County superintendent, the June 23 flood waters ravaged southern West Virginia.

“I knew what I was walking into,” she said after Tuesday’s special meeting of the Nicholas County Board of Education. “But I have a job to do, and I’m just trying to make the best of it.”

Hundreds of concerned citizens turned out to hear–and in many cases meet–Burge-Tetrick for the first time to talk about the uncertain future facing three schools in Nicholas County.

“They are very positive,” she said. “I just feel so welcome by the community, and their support has been overwhelming.”

Summersville Middle School, Richwood Middle School, and Richwood High School all incurred varying degrees of damage during the June 23 floods. Students won’t be able to return to those buildings at the start of the school year–and possibly permanently.

“When I toured the school on July 1, I noticed structural damage to Summersville Middle School and additional structural to damage to Richwood Middle School,” she said. “And at that time I requested that the structural engineers come in an do an evaluation. When they did the evaluation, they uncovered multiple issues.”

FEMA will conduct two surveys of the three schools, but initial damage reports paint a murky picture for the future of Summersville Middle School and an even murkier picture for both campuses in Richwood.

“The first FEMA report states that Richwood Middle School sustained 100-percent damage as compared to the market value,” she said. “Richwood High School is at 77 percent. Summersville Middle is at 50.6 percent, which means that’s ‘possible substantial damage.’

The percentages refer to the cost of repairs relative to the school’s pre-flood market value. FEMA exercises a ‘rule of 50’ in determining whether a school can re-open. All three schools crossed that 50-percent threshold in the short-term. In the long-term, Richwood Middle School and Richwood High School each crossed the 60-percent threshold, which indicates severe damage.

But Burge-Tetrick said no decision would be made on the future of the current Richwood schools until FEMA conducted their next survey.

“We cannot make a decision until we get the final report from FEMA,” she said. “That final report will give us the opportunity to decide whether to rebuild or repair.”

In that instance, the Burge-Tetrick would likely recommend to the Board of Education that the two schools consolidate into a single, new building.

“Consolidation as far as Richwood Middle/High School,” she said. “Just simply because of the space.”

A school building and all it’s ancillary buildings must be on 15 acres of land. Dr. Burge-Tetrick said it would be easier to find 15 acres for one large school than 30 acres for two schools in Richwood.

For now, the short-term solution sends Richwood Middle students to Cherry River Elementary, Richwood Highl students to the Career Technical Education Center and Gauley River Elementary, and Summersville Middle students to the Nicholas County Memorial Park campus and Nicholas County High. This is considered an “emergency plan” by the school board, but Burge-Detrick said all other options have been exhausted.

“The ideal the scenario will be that we get the modulars in within four weeks, we locate ideal spots of property to build new structures, and move forward in a timely manner and get our students back into a stable situation as quickly as possible,” she said.

Burge-Tetrick said the most likely scenario is that students would be in those temporary homes for four to eight weeks and suggested a maximum length of time would be 90 days. After that, the students would move into modular schools, which are considered superior to trailers.

Those modular trailers, if placed back into flood plain areas, would need to be at least raised two feet.

Additionally complicating long-term plans, Richwood Middle and Richwood High are located in floodways–areas that are considered even more dangerous than traditional flood plains. It is unlikely modular units would be able to go into the flood way.

Summersville Middle School, where total damage is less clear at this point, rests on a flood plain.

“Pieces are starting to come together,” Burge-Tetrick said. “I will have to tell you that our FEMA contacts now have been very responsive. It was a little slow in the beginning for all the players to be identified.”

Despite the numerous changes and difficulties, Burge-Tetrick said Nicholas County would likely need to increase their staff size to support the transition and adjustment phase. She also told parents that advanced placement classes and school sports would not be disrupted.