City works to restore fire station, softball complex

By HASKEL BURNS,

As the two-year anniversary of the January 2017 tornado that ripped through Hattiesburg and Petal approaches, Hub City officials are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency – sometimes frustratingly – to restore Fire Station No. 2 and the Timberton Softball Complex that were devastated by the storm.

Chief Administrative Officer Ann Jones told Hattiesburg City Council members Monday that the city has an insurance policy of $225,000 on the fire station on Arledge Street, which had its roof ripped off and its contents destroyed by the tornado. However, when FEMA officials inspected the building, they based their assessment on repairing the building to its prior condition, and only allocated less than $45,000 of eligible funds for the facility.

“Obviously, the city took exception to that,” Jones said. “FEMA has guidelines so that if you have a discrepancy, you can contest those.”

To that end, the city has been working with architecture firm Williams & Associates of Biloxi, and has contacted FEMA to conduct a more realistic assessment of the fire station. Currently, officials are working to prove the building’s damage was deemed more than 50 percent of the cost determined to restore the building, which would allow FEMA to rebuild the facility.

“So in October, our documentation items were populated and have been sent to FEMA,” Jones said. “We have demonstrated by way of this architectural firm and construction costs of 85 percent of what it would cost to renovate that building.”

The fire station project has gone through FEMA’s Cost Estimating Format for Large Projects procedure and is now in the award phase, with officials anticipating a determination from FEMA within the month.

“We fully expect a positive determination on that 50 percent rule, so that would kick us into a reconstruction phase,” Jones said. “We will work with the architect to come up with plans to completely rebuild Fire Station No. 2 to meet current-day code.

“It’s on a very small footprint lot, so one thing we had hoped to do is, once being successful with the 50 percent ruling, is to perhaps try to relocate from that location on Arledge Street just a block over to the corner of Tuscan and Edwards (streets).”

The city also took exception with FEMA’s $565,000 assessment of the damage at the Timberton Softball Complex, which suffered major damage to its ball field lights, fencing, scoreboard, parking lot lights, walking trail lights and playing field soil. The actual building structure at the complex, which was insured by the city for $175,000, incurred only minor damages.

“The significant damage that occurred during the tornado was not with the building; it was with basically amenities,” Jones said. “At that point in time, the city carried an insurance policy of only $100,000 – it was capped at $100,000 – that covered outdoor amenities like ball field lighting, fences, traffic signals, traffic signage and the like.

“So the city had to look to FEMA to recoup the cost of those damages … and $565,000 won’t even put the ball field lights back up at that facility.”

City officials therefore are looking to contest that assessment as well, and have consulted with Hattiesburg engineering firm Neel-Schaffer to estimate damage costs at the softball complex. That inspection turned up a total damage estimate of $2.4 million dollars, approximately $1.8 million more than FEMA’s assessment.

“So I know that this process is going to run lengthy, but it’s very important that we do our due diligence and follow these FEMA processes, because $1.8 million is a lot of money to leave,” Jones said. 

Mayor Toby Barker said he has been in touch with Congressman Steven Palazzo and other representatives to push the process along, and hopes to have answers soon for both the fire station and softball complex projects.

“I will say, just to show you how slow this process is, we still have projects from the 2013 tornado that have yet to be processed and reimbursed, so it can take a while,” he said. “But I appreciate Ann’s diligence on putting out lots of paperwork several times to even get to the (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) process to get to FEMA.”