By GWEN SISSON
CUMBERLAND — As Webster County School board officials walked around the tornado-ravaged campus of East Webster High School, more than one said the destruction was so much worse than photos or television cameras could adequately portray.
The scope of the disaster can be realized in numbers. There are 382 students in East Webster who attend school and extra-curricular activities in 11 total buildings on the Cumberland campus. All the buildings on the campus - all classrooms, the gymnasium, the athletic field houses and most of the attached infrastructures - were destroyed.
Only the new softball building escaped unscathed. After the emotional reality of the storm is absorbed, the challenge of rebuilding and moving forward looms heavy on the minds of school officials, teachers, students and community members.
School board member Keith Hollenhead was on the campus before daylight Wednesday morning with East Webster High School Principal Bill Brand. With flashlights, they could tell it was bad.
“It is hard to describe,” Hollenhead said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
School board president Keith Hudspeth said there wasn’t a dry eye on campus Wednesday morning.
“It is an emotional thing,” Hudspeth said. “Words can’t describe what it is like seeing all of this. God’s hand has been in all of this, because no children lost their lives in this tornado. We can replace buildings.”
Webster County Superintendent of Education Jimmy Pittman said “you are never prepared to see something like this.”
The tour followed an emergency school board meeting called to discuss immediate future plans for the school system and have a question-and-answer session with their insurance providers.
Pittman said he wanted all of the board members to have an opportunity to see the building damage first hand, and to provide a brief overview of “where we are and what we are doing.”
“Any time there is a tragedy of this magnitude, the rumors are unbelievable,” Pittman said. “But we lost no children and we are so thankful for that. And we are going to rebuild this school, right here at this location and provide a nice facility that the students and the community can be proud of for years and years to come.”
School consolidation proponents have again been discussing the possibilities in light of the tornado destruction. Pittman touched on the topic in the meeting to reaffirm the district’s stance, but in general conversation following the meeting, several board members agreed this wasn’t the time to wage that discussion.
“The school is going to be built back in this location,” Pittman said.
“(Consolidation) is not something we even want to address,” Hudspeth said. “This school is big enough and very valuable to the school system.”
School board member Nancy Davis said East Webster High School is also important to the community.
“If we were to consolidate, I don’t believe the school wouldn’t have that ‘community’ feel that it has today,” Davis said.
Pittman said East Webster High School teachers will report to school on Monday at Wood College, with students beginning classes on Tuesday.
In speaking with State Superintendent of Education, Dr. Hank Bounds, told Pittman to “get the students back into the classroom, and let us worry about state testing.”
In light of the relocation circumstances, Pittman said the state would work with the school district to allow students the opportunity to settle in to their new environment.
Students are expected to be at the Wood College location throughout the remainder of this year, and throughout the 2011-12 school year.
“This is a lengthy process and next year’s senior class will graduate from the Wood College campus,” Pittman said.
One of the benefits of the Wood College campus is it’s former life as a college.
“What’s great is it’s a school with blackboards, desks and cafeteria space,” Pittman said.
For the remainder of the school year, the Webster County School District will provide sack lunches at the facility, and work to provide hot meals in the Wood College cafeteria space in the new school year.
“We are going to make this work,” Pittman said, “and we are going to be okay.”
Pittman said students at East Webster Elementary will hold classes on Monday morning in their building in Mathiston, which sustained no structural damage. He said because of the collateral damage in the community, they didn’t feel the families would be able to get children to school.
In the first few days of school, the district will be providing an open house at local churches, providing crisis counseling for students and families.
“The kids are the most important thing right now,” Pittman said. “We have a fourth grader who lost his father in this storm. We have a lot of children who have been through a lot in the past couple of days. We want to be there for them.”
As part of the school board meeting, officials voiced their concerns over replacement insurance and details of the policy.
Only one or two buildings on the East Webster High School campus did not sustain significant damage. Many of the buildings are partially or totally destroyed.
Sandra Hammock and Sandra Dewberry of Dewberry Insurance in Eupora were on hand to explain the benefits of their replacement insurance coverage with the blanket protection.
Hammock said the policy allows up to $38 million per event throughout the district. She also assured the board that they will have better facilities and a new school campus when everything is completed.
School administration will be on the East Webster campus today to take inventory of the items that will be moved to Wood College.
The insurance adjustor will be on the East Webster High School campus Monday to do a full assessment of damages, and Pittman said the board will have a better idea of where things stand as they work to move forward.
Hammock and Dewberry did express concern about the number of people on campus assessing the damage.
School board members also expressed great concern about liability issues.
“Just from a public safety standpoint, we need keep people out of these buildings,” Pittman said.
Particularly in the old auditorium, the walls are “buckling” and may collapse at any time. A fence will be placed around the campus in an effort to keep people from getting hurt on campus. The board also instructed the posting of “No Trespassing” signs to deter additional people on campus.
The only action taken in the informal meeting held on the East Webster High School campus was to declare the school in a state of emergency, by unanimous vote.
The next meeting of the Webster County Board of Education will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Office in Eupora.