Richwood Mayor Baber wants a pause on flooded school demolition plans

By Brad McElhinny in News

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber says he wants to publicly rescind a letter of condemnation for flood-damaged Richwood High School and Richwood Middle School because he believes portions of the schools like the gymnasium, auditorium and kitchen can be salvaged in some form for use by the city.

“We’ve realized the board seems to be moving at a very rapid pace towards tearing down buildings that we think still have value in them,” Baber said.

He said the gym is recently renovated. He said the auditorium and kitchen still seem usable in some form — not by students but for citizens.

“There are big chunks of these buildings that we think we could be salvaged and given to the city.”

State officials say that just because a school has been declared a total loss by the federal government, that doesn’t necessarily mean parts of the school couldn’t be salvaged and spared for use by local citizens. Notably, the gymnasium that Baber wants to save was refurbished with funding and guidance by Governor-elect Jim Justice.

Baber, who invited reporters to listen to his concerns on the steps of the state Capitol, also says he is worried Nicholas County could be moving too fast toward possibly moving a newly rebuilt school outside of Richwood.

But Nicholas County Schools Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick said it’s too early to judge the county’s plan to rebuild its schools that were lost in the June 23 flood. She said right now the county is focused on getting students into portable classrooms.

“We have not made the first step on where or the configuration,” Burge-Tetrick said in a telephone interview.

She said county school officials have had 24 open meetings since July 1 to discuss the path forward after the flood. She said she is hesitant to have private meetings outside of that.

“I believe my meetings should be an open meeting so everyone can attend and hear the same information,” Burge-Tetrick said.

One of Baber’s complaints is too little information coming from local school officials: “They haven’t told us anything.”

Three Nicholas County schools — Richwood High and Richwood Middle plus Summersville Middle — were considered damaged beyond repair after the summer flooding.

Last week, state officials announced a commitment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for rebuilding those schools plus Herbert Hoover High and Clendenin Elementary in Kanawha County.

School systems like Nicholas County received letters of confirmation from FEMA. The federal government will provide the bulk of the funding for new schools, but the schools need to be built outside the 100-year flood plain. Oversight for the school construction falls to the state School Building Authority.

“They will take the lead and help the counties work through all the state policies and procedures and make sure all the codes are followed,” said Jimmy Gianato, director of West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

For the four schools being relocated, county officials largely have flexibility in site selection, according to Gianato, who was a guest on Thursday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

“As long as they put them in a location that’s acceptable under the FEMA guidelines, then it’s their call.”

Baber said local officials should call the shots.

“This is not FEMA’s flood. This is Richwood’s flood,” Baber said at the Capitol. “FEMA doesn’t know Richwood. FEMA doesn’t know Richwood schools.”

Rescinding a condemnation order is unlikely to affect the funding or the process, said Burge-Tetrick. Beyond that, she said, the county school system needs the time, information and perspective to decide the best plan for the rebuilt schools — and it’s nowhere near there yet.

Baber said he wants a deeper exploration of what could be salvaged.

“Let’s hit the pause button here and find out what does it mean to rescind,” he said. “Things are moving way too fast. Let’s take a breath. Let’s see what can be salvaged. Let’s take a look.”