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'It's Just Heartwrenching,' Principal Says of Hurricane Michael's Rampage Through His School

Hurricane Michael tore through the heart of a Panama City middle school when it ripped through the school's gymnasium, carving out a clear path from one side of the building to the other.

The gymnasium, which got shiny new floors last year and a fresh coat of paint at the beginning of this school year, was the main hub for students at Jinks Middle School—where they hung out and chatted in the morning before the first bell, where their basketball and volleyball teams played, and where 8th graders walked across the stage each spring to herald the end of middle school and start of high school.

"It was just heart-wrenching," Britt Smith, the school's principal, said in an interview on Thursday after watching the viral video of the damage the Category 4 storm inflicted on his school.

"It is a place that our school goes to on a regular basis to hear information, to have fun together, and to recognize students' achievements," Smith said. "The thing that bothered me the most is just the symbolic disappearance of that gym and our kids not having it. That's the part that's going to be very, very difficult."

Smith worries that the loss of the school's gym will add to his students' lost sense of safety in the wake of the devastating storm. For many of them, Hurricane Michael was their first brush with a storm of that magnitude that has caused such widespread destruction.

"They have great school pride," Smith said of his 570 students. "They associate themselves with that gym, and I think many of them are probably feeling very insecure and unsafe and wondering 'If this can happen to a place where we gather so often as a group, what's going to happen to me, what's going to happen at home, is there any place that's safe?' The normalcy that they had before this hurricane is now gone... ."

But Smith, the school's principal since 2013, said that as he's been reaching out to students, he's been reassuring them that they will be OK, and that the school's community would get through the disaster and recovery together.

"Our message to them then is that we have some damage, but we are going to take care of it," he said. "The most important thing is that you're here, I am here, and together we are going to get through it. That's really more of our focus right now—letting people know that yes, it's going to be an inconvenience; yes, it's going to be something that we're going to miss, but it's replaceable. You, as a person, you're not replaceable, and that's what we have to be appreciative of. ... And our kids are listening to that message, and I believe they are going to rally around it and that they are going to seize this opportunity to make our school a better place and our community a better place."

In addition to the gym, the wind ripped off a portion of the cafeteria's roof, and some of the school's portable classrooms were damaged.

Hurricane Michael Inflicts Widespread Damage on Schools

Images posted on social media indicated that other schools in the Bay County school district also were hit hard, including Bay High School, which appeared to have a damaged roof and heavy debris littering its grounds. There was debris and flooding at Rutherford High School. And a portion of the roof at A. Crawford Mosley High School appeared to have been whisked away by the storm's ferocious winds.

With such widespread damage in Bay County, the district posted a message from Superintendent Bill Husfelt saying, "our hearts are with those who have suffered losses, many of them devastating, as a result of this hurricane and that everyone's focus right now should be on taking care of their families."

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who called the storm an "absolute monster" urged Bay County residents who had evacuated to stay away. Much of the county still did not have power on Thursday, and cell phone service was spotty. 

"We do not yet have a timeline for returning to school because we have not been able to complete a damage assessment on our buildings let alone make plans for repairs," the Bay district communications team wrote on the superintendent's behalf. (Husfelt tweeted that he had little access to communication.)

"Bay County is a caring community and we know that our citizens will reach out to each other in this time of great need."

Other school districts in counties walloped by Hurricane Michael conveyed similar messages to their communities: The full of extent of the damage to their buildings and infrastructure was still unknown. Some said they will remain closed at least through the end of the week.  

The Jackson County, Fla., district urged the community to stay safe and take care of itself, as it thanked first responders and emergency workers. 

"...Help each other, try to be patient with the inconveniences, and be grateful if you are healthy and alive," the district said.

In Georgia's Bulloch County, the district said its main transportation hub and data center were damaged, and some schools did not have electricity. Schools will be closed until next week.

The magnitude of Hurricane Michael's destruction in the Florida Panhandle became more evident on Thursday as rescue workers picked their way through debris and flattened buildings to find and bring aid to survivors in Mexico Beach, the storm's epicenter.

Michael left four dead in Florida and one each in Georgia and North Carolina, according to The New York Times. About  400,000 Florida homes and businesses had no electricity.

As the National Guard began to make its way to Mexico Beach near where Michael made landfall, an Associated Press reporter filed a chilling dispatch  about the town of nearly 1,000 residents, where about 285 people stayed behind and rode out the storm.

"Entire blocks of homes near the beach were obliterated, reduced to nothing but concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were turned into piles of splintered lumber or were crumpled and slumped at odd angles. Entire roofs were torn away and dropped onto a road. Boats were tossed ashore like toys."

Michael had been downgraded to a tropical storm by Thursday and was expected to blow out to the Atlantic Ocean by Friday morning. But its two-day march through the southeast is expected to leave a trail of damage in several states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, where a state of emergency was declared on Thursday.

The Carolinas, which less than a month ago were blasted with heavy rains and winds from Hurricane Florence, escaped a repeat.

With such devastation around them, Husfelt, the Bay district superintendent, urged his community to take care of their families.

The Bay school district is closed indefinitely, and Smith said that he's confident that Husfelt would only reopen when he has assurances that it was safe to do so.

Smith evacuated to Bradenton, Fla., before the storm and said that he's worried about students and faculty who may relocate because of serious damage to their homes. The district took in several evacuees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city more than a decade ago. And just last year, it enrolled Hurricane Maria evacuees from Puerto Rico.

"The emotional needs of my students and my faculty are very much on my mind and very much a concern because I want to make certain that they know that we support them, that we care about them, and that we are ready to go through this experience united to come out on the other side much better," Smith said.

The video of the damaged gymnasium prompted people across the country who lived through natural disasters to share their experiences and offer assistance, he said.

The school started trauma-informed training recently, and Smith said that training will help his staff further assist students and their families once they return to school, because along with the physical rebuilding that will take place after the storm, there is also an emotional and social rebuilding that will be necessary.

"Our schools are going to be those havens, they're going to be those places where our families come to when they don't know what to do," he said, and where students will need support because of what they experienced.

"We have to be the ones, through our actions, and through our works, and our deeds, that can help them to try to be resilient—to develop that skill of resiliency in order to be the [people] we need them to be...," Smith said.

Photo: A torn American flag hangs in front of a school in Panama City, Fla., after Hurricane Michael tore through the area on Oct. 10. --Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty        

Staff writer Corey Mitchell contributed to this report.

 

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