Estimated $25M in damage to buildings, vehicles

By Jeff Ayres/The Clarion-Ledger

PEARL — The Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Training Academy in Pearl isn’t the most aesthetically appealing place to train officers these days, its director, Pat Cronin, concedes.

The March 18 hailstorms that struck metro Jackson destroyed 87 law enforcement and civilian vehicles parked at the academy when the storms hit, punched holes in roofing membrane above the gymnasium and smashed through more than 100 windows and skylights throughout the complex.

“We look bad,” Cronin muses. “We’ve got plastic holding tires down (on some roofing). We’ve been compromised in some areas, but we’re operational.”

The state Department of Finance and Administration estimates $22 million in damage was done to more than 200 state government buildings, from full-sized structures to storage sheds. An additional $3 million in damage is projected for state-issued vehicles. State officials and their insurance adjusters continue to complete damage assessments and determine a final dollar amount. Repairs could take up to 12 months to complete because so many structures and vehicles were affected.

Kevin Upchurch, DFA’s executive director, says the estimated damage amount is far greater than what was tallied for metro-area government buildings affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, adding much of the hurricane’s impact in Jackson was debris removal.

The hail-damaged buildings are getting by on emergency or temporary repairs at this point, he says, and the buildings should withstand the day-to-day elements, barring another major severe-weather event like the March hail or a strong hurricane.

“I have never seen anything like this. The challenge for us is the sheer volume of the damage,” he said.

Much of the damage to state government buildings is centered on areas along Mississippi Highway in Pearl that includes the training academy, the State Hospital at Whitfield and Hudspeth Regional Center.

Tarps still cover portions of the roofs at Whitfield, which was perhaps the hardest-hit state facility during the storm. Eighty percent of the campus’ 90 buildings sustained some level of storm damage, says spokesman Adam Moore.

Patients had to be relocated for a time from areas where broken glass was strewn about, but no injuries were reported.

“More than 3,000 window panes were broken out. There was a lot of vehicle damage,” he said.

Whitfield serves roughly 500 psychiatric patients and more than 400 more in nursing homes. Many of the windows and Whitfield vehicles have been repaired, and officials at the hospital are now turning their attention to the roofs.

Hudspeth spokeswoman Bel Ferguson says $2.8 million in damage was done to that complex’s roof, plus $230,000 to its heating/cooling system. The building includes 230 on-site patients with developmental and mental disabilities, and Hudspeth works there with an additional 1,500 patients throughout central Mississippi.

Ferguson says operations are “100 percent back to normal” but acknowledges that’s required “little fixes” like leaving buckets out to catch rainwater coming through still-compromised portions of the roof.

In Jackson, the Mississippi Trade Mart’s roof, while not needing tarp, nonetheless was weakened from the battering, while a nearby livestock barn had skylights and gutters knocked down. The Trade Mart is hosting events as per normal despite the roof’s issues.

“We have leaks there that weren’t there before the hailstorm,” said Andy Prosser, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce, adding temporary measures are in place to catch water from those leaks so that it doesn’t affect events.

The livestock barn was hit at a typically slow time of year there. Prosser said its busiest times are during the Dixie National Rodeo in January/February and the Mississippi State Fair in October. He said he hopes the facility can at least be largely repaired by the time this year’s fair starts.

The state’s building insurance policy features a $250,000-per-weather-event deductible, with the rest picked up by the state’s insurers, Upchurch said. The state switched from a self-insurance policy after Katrina when, Upchurch said, the federal government urged Mississippi to adopt the current building-insurance practice in exchange for the massive federal aid that poured into the state after the hurricane.

Upchurch says the new model is more effective for a localized weather event like the hailstorm, because self-insurance would have required the full amount needed to make repairs be in place before those fixes could start. In this case, emergency repairs affecting crucial aspects of state buildings’ operations could be made quickly as assessors were learning the broader impact from the storms. Cronin said more than $15,000 in emergency fixes have been made at the training academy.

A priority list of repair needs is being assembled and quotes are being sought from contractors, but Upchurch acknowledges it will take a while for the repairs to be finished.

Ferguson says Hudspeth officials are being patient and hoping the temporary repairs hold.

“We know we’ll be fixed. We know it’s going to take a little time,” she said.

The progress of window and windshield repairs could be impacted by a depleted glass supply from the rush of repairs that followed the storm, particularly the stronger kind of glass needed for law enforcement vehicles, says J.R. Johnson, owner of The Windshield Repair Co. in Jackson.

His company is working to repair dozens of vehicles that were damaged at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County. Some 106 vehicles were damaged, including 66 that were totaled.

“(Companies) don’t keep much of that in stock. It takes time to get that ordered,” Johnson said.