Unique partnership may bring new gym to Barnwell High

Had it not been for the flooding that hit the state in October, Barnwell 45 School District and Barnwell County Emergency Management Department (BCEM) might not have a unique chance to meet some mutual needs.

The flooding caused parts of the state to be declared disaster areas by the federal government but also released about $36.2 million for “hazardous mitigation” grants. These grants – if approved – can either repair damage or fund projects to better handle future disasters.

BCEM wants a hurricane “safe room” and shelter facility for the region since Barnwell County is part of the state hurricane evacuation route. In the event of a hurricane, evacuated Beaufort County emergency responders will work out of Barnwell County. The current emergency management plan has the responders housed at the Barnwell High gym.

Barnwell 45 wants a new high school gym. Built about 57 years ago, the current gym is showing its age for a facility used nearly daily including: a leaking roof, bleachers that no longer retract, an outdated electrical system and perhaps most notably, no air conditioning.

The state of the gym has long been on District 45 Superintendent Jay Grissom’s mind. While searching the Internet, Grissom discovered school districts in the Midwest – where tornadoes are common – built dome-shaped concrete gyms that double as emergency shelters and/or “safe rooms” to weather storms. Their construction costs were much lower than conventional gyms, he said.

“We have massive problems that need to be fixed. It would cost half as much as building a new one,” Grissom said of the current gym.

BCEM and District 45 have teamed up with Tetra Tech, a consulting firm, to navigate the daunting FEMA grant application process. A typical FEMA hazardous mitigation grant application can run 160 pages and require a myriad of supporting documents, said Jonathan Burgiel, a Tetra Tech program manager who handles disaster recovery services.

Part of those services include filing FEMA applications, in which they have experience. Burgiel has traveled around the country helping groups at or near disaster areas with the application process, he said.

Burgiel, three other Tetra Tech people and BCEM Director Roger Riley visited Barnwell High to assess the gym’s condition. Already a pre-application phase has been passed in which S.C. Emergency Management Division and FEMA officials heard a synopsis of the joint District 45 and BCEM concept before getting clearance to submit a full application.

“You are making do with what you have,” said Bob Maffia, an architect and vice president with Tetra Tech. “I went into the locker rooms and the weight room and I’ve seen worse. I know what you are working with.”

Grissom and Franklin McCormack, the BHS principal, showed the group around campus May 31 before they met with District 45 athletic coaches and teachers on how the gym is used daily and what they would like to have in a new facility such as more locker spaces, abundant shower rooms and practice areas.

The meeting determined how Barnwell High and BCEM’s needs overlap because ultimately, only what mitigates hazards matters to FEMA in possibly awarding grant money for such a structure, said Maffia.

“I’m big about building something with more than one function,” Maffia said.

The grant stipulates that FEMA only covers 75 percent of the construction costs, with Barnwell 45 covering the remaining 25 percent. Also any expenses not directly related to making the edifice a safe room would have to be covered by the district, such as scoreboards, seating and even paint.

However, Grissom has seen other entities take advantage of their gyms or arenas as venues for entertainment events, using the buildings to create additional revenue outside of its primary purpose.

“I can see where we could book rising musical acts or well-known musicians who are in the twilight of their careers or even better, nationally known Christian music groups, which usually don’t require the bigger stages like secular bands,” Grissom said.

From an emergency management perspective, Riley wants a shelter that is unique.

“We want to make this our primary shelter and house special medical needs people and for it to be pet-friendly,” he said. “There are no pet-friendly shelters that I know of in the state.”

Some accommodations like kennels would have to be built outside the building for it to accept pets, Riley said.

According to Red Cross data, most Red Cross shelters do not accept pets.

Likewise, Grissom thinks the district and BCEM has hit upon an innovative idea.

The final application is due in September and a decision on the grant should come within about two months of the deadline. FEMA representatives that he has talked with have been very encouraging concerning the possibilities of this project winning approval, Grissom said.

“Hopefully we will pull this off and have the only monolithic dome and safe room on the East Coast and people will look at Barnwell to copy us and what we have done,” he said.